If you were to ask one of the people who knows me best what I enjoy eating most I’m sure they’ll respond with the word insalata or salad. And by salad, I mean raw, simple ones composed of one or two plant varieties at most, seasoned with flaky sea salt, vinegar or freshly-squeezed lemon juice and a light, extra virgin olive oil. There’s nearly always one at a meal I serve, a trait that’s always served as a source of bemusement to my more carnivorous husband, who jokingly calls me capra or ‘goat’ for my love of raw greens. Not even the precautions I’ve currently been advised to take by torinese doctors as a pregnant woman (more on this subject below) who has never had toxoplasmosis – namely washing all fruits and vegetables thoroughly with Ammuchina and avoiding raw fruits and vegetables when eating out – have dampened my enthusiasm for currently in season fennel, cabbages, valerian salad and my personal favourite, radicchio.
In Italy, deliciously bitter radicchio comes in several varieties, which are named after their towns of origin, almost all of them located in the northeastern region of Veneto. Perhaps the best known is the radicchio di Chioggia, a round variety from Chioggia, a town situated at the southern entrance to the Venetian lagoon. There is also radicchio di Treviso, a longer variety similar in shape to Belgian endive which comes from the inland city of Treviso, north-west of Venice. Radicchio tardivo, that wonderfully eccentric specimen with long, slender curled leaves resembling fingers is a late-harvest variant of the Treviso. Finally, there is the stunning Castelfranco, distinct for its pale, pink-speckled colour and the way its leaves resemble those of a rose as they grow and unfold. Not for nothing is it called the ‘Rose of Winter’ or the ‘Edible Flower’ by the proud locals of Castelfranco, another inland town in the Veneto.
Depending on the variety, radicchio can be cooked in risottos, grilled, sauteed or served in one of my beloved salads. All things I love and make on a regular basis in the colder months of the year. Recently though, I’ve found myself finally making two radicchio-based preparations I’ve long had bookmarked and I just couldn’t resist sharing them with you here. The first is a borlotti bean soup typical of the Veneto region served with raw radicchio leaves on top. The second is a quirky sweet radicchio cake from Tessa Kiros’ beautiful cookbook, Limoncello and Linen Water. If, however, you’re looking for a salad to make with some stunning dark red, white-veined cespi or heads of radicchio, look no further than this post I published over a year ago.
Zuppa di fagioli borlotti e radicchio
(Borlotti Bean Soup and Radicchio)
Ever since reading her cookbook Veneto a year and a half ago I’ve been intrigued by this bean and radicchio combination that Valeria Necchio describes in the introduction to her borlotti beans and radicchio recipe. Initially, I made her family’s salad interpretation of this typical combination in the Veneto region by cooking the beans and tossing these together with torn radicchio leaves. Lately though, I’ve been drawn to another version of this regional classic by making a thick pureed bean soup which is then topped and served with radicchio leaves. The nuttiness of the beans (if you can get your hands on them, look out for Veneto’s own Lamon or Piedmont’s Stregoni borlotti) contrasts wonderfully with the bitter radicchio. Below you’ll find the recipe I’ve come with in the past couple of months. Truly, cooked and raw together never tasted so good.
Ingredients (serves 4 as a starter)
- 320 – 400 g dried Lamon or Stregoni borlotti beans (soaked for 12 hours)
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 1 onion, minced
- 1 carrot, minced
- 1 celery stalk, minced
- extra virgin olive oil, as needed
- fine sea salt, to taste
- 1 small head of Chioggia or Treviso radicchio, washed and dried
- freshly ground black pepper, for serving
- 8 slices of sourdough bread, for serving
Drain the borlotti beans and wash them in cold running water. Place, along with the peeled garlic, bay leaf and rosemary sprig, in a large saucepan with at least double to triple their volume of water. Bring to boil on medium heat. Lower heat, cover and cook for an hour or until tender. Using a slotted spoon, drain and transfer the beans to a bowl. Discard the garlic, rosemary sprig and bay leaf. Reserve the bean cooking broth in your saucepan, add some salt and bring to boil again. Lower heat to a gentle simmer and cover.
Pour just enough olive oil to coat the cooking surface of a wide skillet. Heat the olive oil and add the minced onion, carrot and celery. Lower heat and saute until the onion is soft and translucent, about 6-7 minutes. Add the drained cooked beans and a ladleful of the boiling bean broth. Cook for another 5-10 minutes or until the minced vegetables and beans are very tender and have come together nicely.
Set your food mill over a bowl and pass the beans and minced vegetable mixture through in batches, to puree. For a smoother resulting puree, pass through a second or third time if necessary. Transfer back to your skillet, cook for a few more minutes, ensuring that you stir the puree constantly and add just enough boiling bean broth until obtaining a consistency that’s not too thick nor to thin. Taste for salt.
Meanwhile, tear or cut your washed and dried radicchio leaves into smaller pieces. Remove the pureed soup from heat and serve in warmed soup bowls. Top with a generous grinding of black pepper, a good drizzle of olive oil and the cut or torn radicchio leaves. Serve immediately, with some sourdough bread.
Torta di radicchio
Friends and family are often skeptical whenever I mention the leafy star ingredient in my current favourite breakfast or afternoon tea cake, a specialty from the town of Chioggia. The most common reactions after eating a slice though are exclamations of surprise (‘I can’t believe it’s radicchio!’), approval and requests for the quirky recipe. Here it is, ever so slightly adapted from Tessa’s to fit a 22 cm diameter cake tin or the bundt tin shape pictured.
- dry breadcrumbs, for dusting cake tin
- 150 g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing cake tin
- 1 litre water
- 2 tablespoons sugar, plus 150 g extra
- the juice of 1 lemon
- 200 g radicchio leaves (preferably from a round, Chioggia variety)
- 4 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 shot grappa
- a good grating of nutmeg
- 175 g plain flour, sifted
- 2 tsp baking powder
- a pinch of salt
Heat oven to 180 ° C (350 ° F). Grease a 22 cm diameter cake tin (or a bundt cake tin) with a knob of butter. Dust with breadcrumbs so it is coated all over.
Bring the water to boil with the 2 tablespoons of sugar and the freshly squeezed lemon juice. Add the radicchio leaves to the boiling water and cook for a few minutes to soften. Drain well, chop finely and leave to cool.
Cream the remaining butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the eggs in one at a time, then add the grappa and grated nutmeg, whisking well after each addition. Gently fold in the flour, baking powder, the salt and finally, the cooled radicchio.
Pour the batter in the greased and dusted cake tin and bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool completely before removing from the cake tin.
Finally, I was lucky enough to give a cooking lesson to Lindsay, a short-term American expat and her mother-in-law recently. Lindsay, a mum of two young boys, is expecting baby number three now and naturally, it didn’t take long for our conversation to turn from salads and the above-mentioned radicchio cake to the differences between prenatal care and dietary advice dispensed to pregnant women in Italy, the USA and Australia.
It’s not what I normally do here but since I get a LOT of questions about this subject as a long-term expat and mum here, I thought I’d conclude this post with some things you should know about pregnancy, childbirth and my own personal reflections on these matters here in Turin. Please note that each region in Italy has its own public health system and the information below may not apply if you find yourself in elsewhere in Italy.
First of all, private health insurance is rare and most locals rely on the regional public health system for their prenatal care and when giving birth. In the first trimester, all pregnant women in Turin and the region of Piedmont are instructed by their medical caregivers to report to their local consultorio. There they are issued with a green folder known as l’agenda di gravidanza, which includes all the forms you’ll need for all the ultrasounds and blood, urine, screening and diagnostic tests you’re entitled to undertake completely free of charge during this very special time in your life. Though it’s common for local women to see a private gynaecologist as well (expect to pay from 80 to 120 euro per appointment) exclusively public hospital, consultorio or midwife-based care (more about this option below) is possible and won’t cost you a cent.
Turin is home to Ospedale Sant’Anna, a university teaching hospital which specialises in women’s health and obstetrics. Last year, more births took place here than at any other hospital in Italy. This hospital is definitely your best bet if your pregnancy is high-risk and/or if you give birth before term as it equipped with an intensive care unit for premature newborns. Go here too if you’d prefer to have an epidural which is available 24/7. Unlike many other countries, this form of pain relief is NOT routine during childbirth in Italy! If you’re lucky enough to have a healthy, complication-free pregnancy (and don’t forget, most of them are!), the three other local public hospitals with maternity wards – Ospedale Martini, Ospedale Mauriziano and Ospedale Maria Vittoria – also offer a high standard of care. The Mauriziano and Maria Vittoria, incidentally, recently began offering epidurals too, but they can’t guarantee their availability 24/7 like Sant’Anna does. In contrast, for those of you who’d prefer to have a less medicalised experience, you may want to consider Sant’Anna’s recently-founded birth centre run exclusively by midwives. The hospital also runs a home birth service.
While you’re pregnant here, expect to be dispensed medical and dietary advice that differs considerably from what you may be told to do in the USA, UK or Australia. I’ve yet to come across a health practitioner here who has said to eliminate alcohol or caffeine from my diet, for example. And, I’m not complaining at all! Just for the record, I’m currently enjoying one caffeinated beverage a day (and anything else I consume thereafter is decaf) plus the odd sip of wine at mealtimes. Waiters will not refrain from serving you a glass of red, white or rosé when eating out and don’t expect judgmental looks from locals if you enjoy a bit either.
If you test negative to ever having had toxoplasmosis though (Italy is one of the few countries to routinely test for your receptivity to this disease during pregnancy) you will be instructed to avoid anything that has fresh fruits and veggies when eating out and to wash all fruits and veggies in Ammuchina (a sterilising solution) before consuming them. I quickly tired of using expensive, smelly Ammuchina to wash my salads and fruits soon after learning I was pregnant in autumn and am using the bicarbonate soda I’ve always used to wash dirt-ridden spinach and salads instead. As for eating out, I’ve had to insist on several occasions to well-meaning wait-staff that I don’t have a problem with raw fruits and vegetables featuring on my plate (they often offer to take these off!). As someone who has always been obsessed with eating cruditès at meals, I just can’t bear the thought of eliminating something which is so healthy for you. I have been avoiding raw and undercooked fish and meats, prosciutto crudo and other cured meats and salamis though. I’ve already requested a generous serving of carne cruda or Piedmontese steak tartare topped with parmesan shavings and finely sliced celery as my first back-at-home meal after giving birth!
Then there is cheese, which in Italy, let alone the dairy-producing region of Piedmont, is quite the minefield to navigate during pregnancy. The general advice is to avoid cheeses made from unpasteurised milk, soft cheeses, and mould-ripened and blue vein cheeses. So goodbye to some of my favourites for the time being – unless they have been cooked – such as Gorgonzola, Fontina and some of the Piedmontese tome. Parmigiano Reggiano, though made with unpasteurised milk, is perfectly fine however because it has been aged long enough to keep listeria at bay. Other aged favourites such as Pecorino and Provola are also fine for this reason. Soft cheeses or cheeses that haven’t been aged such as Ricotta, Mozzarella, Scamorza, and Robiola are also fine provided they’ve been made with pasteurised milk. At any rate, whenever I’ve been in doubt, I’ve checked labels very carefully or given some of the cheesemongers and producers at my local market the third degree about milk pasteurisation and the cheese aging process. I suggest you do the same. And, of course, whenever I’ve found myself craving Gorgonzola or Fontina, which I must admit has been quite a common occurrence, I’ve turned to cooking them in some form instead!
One final source of bemusement during my pregnancies here – and other mums I’ve spoken to have had similar experiences – has been the subject of weight gain. Doctors and midwives here may be stricter than what you’re used to about this inevitable development during pregnancy and frown upon increases of more than 10 kilos. Any more and you may get yelled at for indulging in too much food! Personally, as someone who was slightly underweight before my first pregnancy and ended up gaining 12.5 kilos, I found this rather excessive and tremored with fear whenever I was made to stand on a set of scales every time I came in for a check up.
All in all though, there are lots of positives to being pregnant here. Now that I am visibly pregnant with baby number 2 – another little girl whose name will also start with C – I rarely have to ask anyone to give up their seat on the metro or bus. And I know from commuting regularly around town with my dear firstborn Miss C that this considerate behaviour will continue. Locals are generally very good here about ensuring mothers with babies and young children get to sit down on public transport too. People genuinely love babies and children here. Whenever I go to the hospital lab for one of my tests, there is a priority queue for pregnant women. Same goes for my local supermarket. Also, it’s a wonderful conversation starter, especially with curious old ladies who love making guesses about the sex of the baby based on the shape of my bump. They’re nearly always wrong, but hey, who cares? It still feels nice to be given extra attention, almost doted upon at times like you’re a fertility goddess. Looking forward now to enjoying the final two months of this very special time.
N.B. Maternity photos by my very talented friend, Turin-based child and wedding photographer Michelle Bottalico. For more photos, here’s a link to her blog post about this very enjoyable photoshoot from the third trimester of my first pregnancy in 2014. Also, part of this post’s content appeared in this article written by me for Italy Magazine in January 2019.