The bitter root is a typical winter vegetable that has become a characteristic product of the area surrounding the ancient village of Soncino, in the province of Cremona.
The bitter root of Soncino is grown in fresh, deep soils, that are not excessively rich in nutrients and that are well drained. For this reason, in fact, sandy soils that are in a state of decalcification and that typically receive plenty of rain with mild summers, dry autumns and cold winters are preferred. These characteristic soils can be found in the so-called “zone dei fontanili”, along the Oglio valley. It is here where the bitter root is typically grown.
The seeds are planted in the ground in July and as soon as the first leaves are formed, thinning is done to allow for good growth development and adequate space. Depending on the season, irrigation may also be used in order to avoid the roots becoming too woody.
The harvest starts at the beginning of autumn: using a particular plough, the earth is turned over and the taproots (the main root) are harvested manually and placed inside crates before being washed and finally packaged. In the past they were immersed in the fresh water of the springs and then transported to the collection centres. According to tradition, this crop must carry out a ten-year rotation so that the soil has the possibility of renewing the characteristics necessary to obtain a quality product.
It is typically a winter vegetable that is served as a side dish or as a main dish. The bitter root can be the main component of many recipes: au gratin, poached or, as gastronomic tradition dictates, boiled to be served as a side dish for cotechino or salami cooked in a pot.
The distribution of this vegetable in Soncino is attributed to two families, the Zuccotti and the Grazioli, since the early twentieth century. It is said that Francesco Grazioli was on his way to Genoa one time when he noticed a warehouse with some bags coming from Holland that were destined to be returned to the sender as rejected goods. Intrigued, he asked for more information, he then obtained a jute bag containing the seeds of the roots. Thus, in the summer of 1907 Grazioli sowed five “pertiche” (roughly an acre) of land in the municipality of Soncino. At first, they ate the leaves, then their interest shifted to the consumption of the root which is considered more pleasant. Over time, the production reached considerable economic interest both for the producers and for the employed work force, especially in the 1960s.
Today however, the production of the bitter root is constantly decreasing and is carried out by only two producers who work at the local market and sell some of their product through a few specialised shops.
The research activities necessary for the reporting of this product in the Ark of Taste online catalogue were financed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies, the General Directorate of the Tertiary Sector and Corporate Social Responsibility – notice n° 1/2018 “Slow Food in action: communities protagonists of change”, pursuant to Article 72 of the Tertiary Sector Code, referred to in Legislative Decree No. 117/2017.