Witlof Chicory

Fall 2013
Witlof chicory is easy to force in a bucket in the dark – and much less expensive homegrown than ordered at a restaurant. Photos by Will Bonsall.

By Will Bonsall

Exclusive restaurants call them “chicons” and will serve you a pair of half-heads doused in vinaigrette in exchange for your firstborn male child. Yet these so-called gourmet luxuries are surprisingly easy to grow in your own garden.

Growing chicons is a two-stage process, first growing the long, fat chicory roots, then storing them in the cellar until you’re ready to “force” a batch of blanched sprouts in a dark place, such as under your kitchen sink.

That extra forcing step is the main advantage of witlof chicory over other salad ingredients: It’s available all winter, long after most lettuce, cabbage and other makings have been used or gone by. And while producing the uniform, tightly-folded heads on the “Specialties” column of the menu might be a bit fussy, it is simple to grow the looser greens, which can be chopped like slaw and mixed with shredded carrots, winter kohlrabi and sprouted onions. Indeed, I object to the word “forced”; just try to stop those roots from doing what they fully intended to do anyway.

“Greens” is also a misnomer, as the whole point of growing witlof chicory is to make sure it doesn’t turn green, else it will be intolerably bitter. In fact the name “witlof” (sometimes spelled “witloof”) is Dutch for “white leaf,” referring to the blanching that prevents chlorophyll from forming in the developing heads. Not that chlorophyll is the problem – that tastes fine and is very healthy; but lactones also form on exposure to sunlight, and they ruin chicons for human palates.

Witlof is also known as Belgian endive, a reflection of its botanical origins. True endive, Cichorium endivia, is a different species, though closely related to chicory, Cichorium intybus. True endive is a frilly-leafed annual often substituted for lettuce in late summer salads. It is the same species as escarole, merely a different leaf form.

The intybus species has several forms with several uses: Radicchio and Italian dandelion (real dandelion is a distant relative, along with globe artichokes, thistles and sunflowers) are used as fresh salad or steamed greens, where their slight bitterness is considered a taste “accent.” The ‘Magdeburg’ variety is grown for its long, fat roots, which are chopped, roasted and ground to make a beverage. (See “Beyond Coffee – Smooth and Naturally Sweet” in the fall 2011 issue of The MOF&G.) Sometimes ground chicory is also sold as a “blend enhancer” or cheap adulterant, according to your taste or whose advertising you believe.

Witlof was derived from ‘Magdeburg’ as recently as 1850. It seems a Belgian gardener was retrieving some over-stored chicory roots from a cellar for roasting when he discovered they had already broken dormancy, and the old crowns had formed newly sprouted heads. Tasting them, he recognized the potential for a totally new food product. Interestingly, Belgium was also the source of a type of cabbage with a fleshy stalk that sprouted numerous tiny “heads”; these Brussels sprouts take their name from the Belgian capital. Brussels certainly looms large on the map of fine eating.

A closer look at the chicons.

Among the numerous varieties of witlof chicory (I have dozens), the main difference I’m aware of is the degree of earliness or lateness; that is, how long you can store them before sprouting. Although I pay little attention to that, I’m sure it’s very important if you’re forcing successive batches for the marketplace.

In the garden, witlof chicory can be sown fairly late with acceptable results, but sown early (it’s very cold-tolerant), it can form larger roots that will yield better chicons. I seed them in moderately rich soil, meaning adequate in nitrogen but with abundant humus. I work the soil deeply and remove any stones, which on my land is a gargantuan undertaking, but worthwhile if I want long, straight, un-forked roots. This soil preparation will benefit ensuing crops as well; I don’t garden for this year only.

I sow chicory much as I sow lettuce, thinly and shallowly, and thin to 3 to 6 inches between plants. As with most of my row crops, I mulch chicory with a generous layer of shredded leaves when the plants are about 2 inches tall. The mulch takes but minutes to apply; I strew a blizzard of this dry confetti (mostly maple, but whatever I have), stored from the previous October in huge rainproof bins. Most of the confetti sifts down around the young plants with no great care on my part. That’s in sharp contrast to hay mulch, which is slow and tedious to apply and not nearly as effective. If I inadvertently clobber a little plant with a carelessly dropped lump of un-fluffy leaves, it takes but a moment to cuff it off. This type of mulch assures that no further weed control will be necessary and soil will remain evenly moist throughout the season, despite the vicissitudes of rain.

I know of no pest or disease issues with chicory, which is perhaps why it is such a common weed along roadsides and unkempt lots. Sclerotinia, a fungus, may be a problem, but in my experience it’s more of a problem with unmulched, low-humus soils that are poorly drained and not rotated.

The next time I pay attention to chicory is at harvest, anytime before the ground freezes. I lift roots with a spading fork, taking care not to damage or break them, even though they are usually trimmed to length for forcing. The foliage, which is as bitter as old dandelions, should be trimmed off and composted, but take care not to damage the root crowns, as the blanched sprouts will arise from these.

I usually store the roots loose in barrels, packed in layers of dry, whole maple leaves, as I store my carrots, until ready for forcing; however, storing them in buckets, ready to force, is better. For that they must be trimmed to the proper length so that the roots can fit comfortably in 5-gallon plastic buckets, surrounded by soil or even sand. Fertility is irrelevant at this point, since the stored root energy will force the new growth; the soil or sand provides only support and moisture. Pack as many roots into a bucket as you can and still work the sand in among them, if necessary trimming off any side roots that would get in the way.

Storing the prepped roots in buckets right after harvest is more convenient than storing them in barrels and then prepping them and putting them in buckets when you’re ready to force them: You have only to bring the buckets out of cold storage (33 to 45 F), remove the lids, and set them in a cool, dark place to begin sprouting. Also, when stored loose in a barrel and then forced late, the sprouts may begin growing at an angle to the roots. (Even in complete darkness they know which way is up.) Also, if they have even begun to sprout when moved from barrels to buckets, some grit will likely get in the heads.

After a couple of weeks in the cool, dark place, chicons will begin to reach harvestable size, depending on the variety and the temperature. Raising the temperature can accelerate sprouting but can also cause etiolation – elongation of the internodes, causing a loose tuft to form instead of a tight head. That’s a minor nuisance if you’re not planning to market them.

Large-scale chicon producers have some very different priorities from growers for home use. They need highly uniform chicons maturing in predictable, successive flushes for their pricey clientele. Carefully graded roots and tightly controlled temperature are their keys to success. The home grower defines success differently. Variable sizes are no real problem. If your forcing space is a bit too cool, forcing will just take slightly longer (what’s the big hurry?); if it’s too warm, you’ll get loose, fluffy heads, wholly unmarketable but deliciously useful for home consumption.

Here’s a tip you’re unlikely to find elsewhere: After each chicory root forms one chicon – marketable or not – it is useless, spent, done for. But hold on! If you harvest the chicon slightly above the crown, the harvested portion will tend to separate – again, a problem for the marketplace but quite useful to us – and most important, the roots will form a second flush of growth from the same crown, often producing several smaller heads or no real “heads” at all, but loose bunches that are no less delicious. They might look unimpressive on a blue plate at the Ritz, but chopped in a winter potato salad with sprouted onion shoots, they’re not too shabby! Some things are just too tasty to be wasted on rich people.

So it’s your choice: Order chicons at some cordon-bleu eatery (take you’re credit card and the deed to your farm) or grow your own at home for a fraction of the cost and several times the flavor.

About the author: Will Bonsall directs Scatterseed Project, a seed saving enterprise. Contact him at Khadighar, 39 Bailey Rd., Industry, ME 04938.

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