Chicory is an herb native to Eurasia now grown throughout the world. It has a rather bitter flavour and mild laxative properties, but is a rich source of beta-carotene. Many world war memoirs include burnt chicory in the recipe for ersatz coffee; based on personal experience it must have been very bitter stuff, especially with sugar in such short supply. The best word to describe the taste of chicory leaf is “ghastly”. I was reluctant to use them in compost for fear of poisoning the worms.
Witloof chicory, also known as Belgian or French Endive, is reputedly different, capable of producing shoots called chicons that reputable sources insist are actually good for salad. They are produced through a tricky process called “forcing.” Chicons are small, six to eight inch long cream coloured chicory greens that re-grow from witloof chicory roots and are supposedly very tasty when eaten young. Leaves and stems are cut off at harvest time and the roots saved in a damp substrate to hibernate until the gardener gets a hankering for chicons, at which time they’re lifted out and planted vertically in a bucket of wet sand. Several inches of peat moss or coir sit atop that and the bucket is kept in the dark. Hard pointy heads of cream coloured chicory leaves grow out the tops of the roots and are harvested in three to four weeks, making a supposedly delicious addition to salads in the depths of winter. Evidently keeping them in the dark prevents bitterness. There appears to be a corollary here between horticulture and political culture, but I digress.
I sent away for witloof chicory seeds and sowed them in early spring of 2021. I left the plants undisturbed, except for removing stalks as they bolted, until after the first few hard frosts. I dug them up, careful not to break the measly little roots that subsequently produced nothing over the winter that I could feel confident about, so I decided to try replanting the roots to see if they got bigger this year. I wasn’t prepared for all the new stalks continuing to grow out of these roots but I kept cutting them down, even though the blue flowers on ones that got away on me were lovely.
Annie Proulx writes about the earliest description of growing chicons in her book The Fine Art of Salad Gardening saying that various gardeners have been ascribed the process, but the most realistic and earliest description comes from J. C. Loudon’s 1835 edition of Encyclopedia of Gardening, wherein he describes the forcing process of chicory as a common “early spring crop in the Netherlands.” That is the first written reference; actual farmers may have been doing this for much longer. Any art history student needing a thesis might want to check the Dutch masters (especially the Breugels) to see what the peasants in the background are doing. The first sighting of the lateen sail and furrow plow are found on the walls of art galleries, dated well before any written record, but I digress again. It’s becoming habitual. I hope it doesn’t get so bad I start in on what we learned about hunting methods from ancient cave graffiti.
When I dug up the witloof this week, there were many stalks on each, so I hope when I force them the roots don’t produce a bunch of small chicons. Twelve more roots grew right beside the 11 roots I planted, so I dug up all 23. Proulx says to discard any that have a diameter less than one inch, and I have two or three whose tops fill the bill but the rest are smaller. After all that tender care I’m saving most of the rest and will force the biggest ones in about a month, to be ready for Christmas dinner. Proulx says they can be forced two more times so if they turn out as tasty as Proulx says, I’ll do just that.
Next year I plan on replanting the spent roots as well as the smaller ones directly into the garden just for the lovely flowers and plan to save their seeds. Annie Proulx offers two recipes for salads made with chicons, and here is one of them:
French Witloof Salad
6 to 8 chicons, sliced into bite-sized pieces
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup watercress, broken into bite-sized pieces
1 small shallot shaved into paper-thin slices
1/3 cup olive oil and vinegar dressing
Mix all the ingredients well and let the salad stand 10 minutes at room temperature before serving. All the ingredients should be cool but not chilled. Four servings.
If I may be forgiven a final digression, the reader might be interested in examining Peter Breugel’s painting “Hunters in the Snow,” easily found on the website of the Kunsthistorichies Museum of Vienna. Note the skaters on the frozen pond in the background. Are those hockey sticks? Is that a puck? In 1565? Save that for the next time Windsor and Halifax start arguing about where hockey was invented. You’re welcome.