(Nov. 17, 1:20 p.m.) LE GRAND, Calif. — Florindo Marchini’s arrival in California dates back nearly a century. Four Marchini generations later, the Italian roots are obvious in the inventory of winter vegetables available from J. Marchini Farms Inc.

The company’s signature crop is radicchio.

“It’s really our flagship commodity,” said Marc Marchini, director of cost analysis and production for the San Joaquin Valley grower-shipper.

It is the specialty vegetables, however, that garner most of the attention as the winter season approaches. Puntarella, also known as asparagus chicory, is a favorite in Canada, Marchini said. It is one of several specialty crops grown on acreage that Marchini calls the company’s experimentation garden.

“We’ve had this garden on this land — a summer garden and a winter garden — for more than 50 years,” Marchini said.

The puntarella harvest began in early November and continues into January, he said. The commodity’s leaves are discarded, and the base of the stalks are used in soups and salads, Marchini said. As with all of the company’s vegetables, J. Marchini Farms sells puntarella to wholesalers, many of which focus on high-end restaurants, he said.

The company’s vegetables are sold under the Joe’s Premium Vegetables label, a tribute to Joe Marchini, Marc Marchini’s grandfather who remains active in the company.

“He’s not out here every day, but he makes sure he knows what’s going on and that we know he knows,” the younger Marchini said.

In 1960, Joe Marchini joined Giampaoli-Marchini Co., the tomato grower-shipper his father and a partner formed years earlier. He left the company in 1987 to found Marchini Bros. Inc., the forerunner of J. Marchini Farms.

His son, Jeff Marchini, the company’s operations manager, followed Joe into the business, as did Jeff Marchini’s sons, Marc, 25, and production manager Nic, 23.

Specialized growing

The company offers Tuscan cabbage, which has broad, dark green leaves that grow upright, year round.

Castlefranco is another chicory variety, but it strongly resembles cabbage. Nicknamed winter rose, castlefranco grows in heads. Its light green leaves, decorated with splotches of red, are less rubbery than cabbage and have a definite celery taste. It’s available through January, Marc Marchini said.

Cardone, a cousin of the artichoke, is covered with thorny spikes. Cardone is a holiday staple at Christmas and Easter meals especially in Italian homes, Marc Marchini said. The plant’s leaves and thorns are removed at harvest and the stalks are usually boiled, he said. The boiled stalks may be used in salads or the stalks may be deep fried, sautéed or steamed.

Harvesting was scheduled to begin Nov. 18, Marc Marchini said, and there will be plenty of cardone available for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The harvest takes a break in January and returns just before Easter, he said. Demand for the commodity is strongest in U.S. cities with large Italian-American populations, such as New York and San Francisco, he said.

Growing specialty vegetables with abbreviated seasons can be trying for the company and its employees, Marchini said.

“Every year we have to retrain them because the seasons are short and they forget — and so do we,” he said.

Jenny McAfee, vice president of sales, directs marketing of the company's specialty crops, with support from Marc Marchini.

The Watsonville radicchio concluded at the end of October and moved immediately to Le Grand. Picking and packing in the valley will continue through January, Marchini said, and then move to Mexico for a few weeks. By late March, the spring harvest will begin in Le Grand.

“Our most popular packing for radicchio is our nine-pack cartons for the domestic market,” Marchini said.

The company also has a 12-pack carton for exports, which Marchini said is a favorite in the Pacific Rim countries. Another radicchio variety, treviso, follows the same harvest pattern and is available year round, Marchini said. So, too, is fennel, another stalk vegetable that is commonly used in salads and soups.

J. Marchini Farms offers specialties for winter
Marc Marchini, director of cost analysis and production for J. Marchini Farms Inc., Le Grand, Calif., holds a puntarella, one of the company’s specialty winter vegetables. The commodity’s leaves are discarded, and it is the base of the stalks that are used in soups and salads, Marchini says.