Known variously as Chicory, Belgian Endive, Brussels Witloof, and Perle du Nord. See here for the other forms of Chicory.
Famous for the forced, blanched heads or ‘chicons’ that are loved by gourmets. Chicory 'Brussels Witloof' is the traditional finely-textured variety used for forcing. It produces tightly packed high-quality leaves and is one of the finest tasting winter vegetables.
Witloof (meaning 'white leaf' in Flemish) has a delicious, tangy, unique flavour, very easy to grow. It needs to be blanched to obtain the characteristic pale yellow, but can be cut young for use without blanching. Raw, cooked, baked, roasted, caramelised, stewed, sweet or savory, there are endless ways to enjoy Witloof chicory. It is served in most of central Europe as a hot dish, but also used occasionally in a salad. Use it raw for dipping, filling or chopped in salads.
Growing Belgian Endive at home is easier than you might think. It does take time, around 9 to 10 months but even though it seems like a long time to wait for a harvest, the labour involved is minimal. It is tolerant of both poor soils and partial shade.
Sow seed in September or October, a little thinning a weeding in November and December, no fertiliser or water needed in the summer, and then dig the roots up in April. A day to dry off in the sun, and then the roots are potted up in a long-tom clay pot, and placed in storage until June.
Position: Chicory prefers a light well dug soil which is reasonably fertile but it is tolerant of poor soil. It can be grown in full sun or partial shade. It's a good crop for growing between rows of peas and sweet corn. At the beginning of the season the chicory will get full sun. As the season progresses the growing peas/corn will shade the chicory from the full sun.
Sowing: Sow indoors from September or sow direct after frosts have passed. Seeds germinate best in soils around 16 to 18°C (60 to 65°F). Germination in 7 to 14 days. Keep evenly moist for leaves that are stressed due to water shortage will turn bitter and taste terrible. It will withstand light frosts.
Sowing Indoors: Sow into open flats or in cell packs 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. Sow seeds in moist growing mix and thin to 1 plant every 5cm (2in) once seedlings have sprouted the first set of true leaves. Transplant seedlings outdoors when they are 10cm (4in) tall. Make sure the soil is moist and the seedlings do not dry out. Water well until they are firmly established.
Sowing Direct: Sow into prepared beds as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Successive seedings ensures a continual harvest. Sow seeds every two weeks through to autumn. Sow 1 to 2 seeds every 10cm (4in). Sow 7mm (¼in) deep in rows 20cm (8in) apart. Once they are established, thin plants to 20cm (8in) in each direction.
Forcing: Seed sown early in the early summer should have produced good size plants by early autumn. Dig these up and transfer, planting into large containers. Use a good compost and sand. Trim the top of the plant off leaving a stub of plant about 3cm (1in) above ground level. These should be covered with a bucket or something of similar size. A large plant pot is good but ensure the drainage holes are well covered to stop any light from getting in. Light will cause the leaves to be bitter tasting. Place in a dark place at temperatures of around 10 to 15°C (50 to 60°F), a garage is ideal and in 3 to 6 weeks the plants should be about 20cm (8in) tall. At this time they can be harvested. The shoots will continue to grow back as you pick throughout winter so you'll have a continuous supply of crisp leaves. The leaves may get smaller after the first harvest.
Harvesting: 10 weeks to maturity. For baby leaf salad, harvested anytime after the leaves begin to open. Harvest the outer leaves as you need them. It only takes a few weeks for the blanched chicons to sprout if you use a black cloth or black plastic to block out the light. Shoots can be cut off just above the root top, and a second crop with fewer leaves can be harvested in a few weeks.
Storage: Clean off dirt and cool by immersing in chilled water. (Amazingly, this process is called “Hydro cooling” in the industry!) It can be stored at 0°C (32°F) for 2 to 3 weeks. It will deteriorate rapidly with increasing temperature. Chicory is sensitive to ethylene gas so do not store with vegetables and fruits such as apples and pears.
Origin: Chicory describes a group of hardy annual or biennial cultivated plants developed from a common wild plant of Europe, western Asia, and Africa. Wild forms of endive grow in the same area as chicory, but extends farther to the east to India and beyond, including Siberia. The cultivated varieties are root chicory (Cichorium var. sativum) and salad chicory (Cichorium var. foliosum). Chicory was introduced to England, Germany, Holland, and France in the 13th century. The French used it primarily for medicinal purposes to "comfort the weake and feeble stomack and to help gouty limbs and sore eyes". Today, the main growing countries are Belgium, France, Holland, and Germany. The earliest mention of it in North America was in 1803, and ever since, has created confusion in the culinary world.
Nomenclature: The cultivated varieties are root chicory (Cichorium var. sativum) and salad chicory (Cichorium var. foliosum). Root chicory was initially used as animal fodder, but later as the basis for ersatz coffee.
Salad chicory can be divided into four groups:
Radicchio (popular Italian variety)
Sugarloaf (a popular heading variety)
Large-leafed chicory, cutting or leaf chicory (Catalogna or asparagus chicory)
Belgian endive or witloof chicory (white or blanched varieties that originated in France and Belgium).
History: Belgian endive was first produced in 1830, by accident. The story goes that Jan Lammers, a Brussels farmer, stored chicory roots in his cellar, intending to dry and roast them for coffee (a common practice in 19th century Europe). But when Lammers returned to his farm after serving in the Belgian War of Independence, he had achieved quite different results. The roots, having rested for several months in the dark, had sprouted small, white leaves. Curious, Lammers took a taste and found the leaves to be tender, moist and crunchy. By the 1870s, endive was popular in Paris and beyond and known as 'white gold'. In the north of France it is best known as 'Perle du Nord'.
As a Coffee Substitute: Root chicory (Cichorium intybus var. sativum) has long been in cultivation in Europe as a coffee substitute. The cultivated chicory plant has a history reaching back to ancient Egyptian time. Medieval monks raised the plants and when coffee was introduced to Europe, the Dutch thought that chicory made a lively addition to the bean drink. In the United Kingdom Camp Coffee, a coffee and chicory essence, has been on sale since 1885, it was especially popular during the Second World War.
The roots are baked, ground, and used as a coffee substitute and additive, especially in the Mediterranean region (where the plant is native), although its use as a coffee additive is also very popular in India, parts of Southeast Asia, South Africa and southern United States, particularly in New Orleans. It has also been popular as a coffee substitute in poorer economic areas, and has gained wider popularity during economic crises such as the Great Depression in the 1930s. Chicory, with sugar beet and rye was used as an ingredient of the East German Mischkaffee (mixed coffee), introduced during the "coffee crisis" of 1976-79.