This year I decided to really go for it on the chicory front. The British palette lags a bit behind the Italian in the appreciation of bitter flavours but it’s getting better. Bitter leaves are now pretty standard in bags of salad everywhere, the strong flavour being easily tempered by dressing and by mixing with sweeter leaves.
I had better explain at this point what I mean here by chicory because it does get quite confusing. In some bits of Europe it’s called endive; in others the names are used interchangeably. In truth, they are very closely related, sharing the same genus. Both are bitter-leaved short-lived perennials normally grown as annuals. Left alone, they will produce spikes of attractive, usually blue, flowers in their second year.
The plant that we tend to call endive in the UK is the frizzy-leaved, non-hearting one that resembles a lime-green fun wig. Sometimes the centre is a creamy yellow, because traditionally a plate (or special cap) is laid on top to blanch the leaves and sweeten them up a bit. Modern cultivars are now sweeter but blanching is aesthetically appealing. The endive season only really runs from late summer to early winter, as it can only stand a light frost.
There’s more diversity of form in the one we usually call chicory. Some form tight heads, others are loose-leaved. Most originate in Italy and many of those come from the Veneto. I grow several different varieties each year. ‘Sugar Loaf’ produces tall tightly wrapped green heads with domed ends, which look like a Cos lettuce or indeed like their historical namesake. Loaves of sugar are rare these days but you can Google it for comparison.
The tight white heads of ‘Witloof’ chicory (aka Belgian Endive) are the ones most commonly for sale in supermarkets. These chicons are made by cutting off all the foliage at the start of winter and then forcing the hefty parsnip-like roots in the dark. The food reserves contained within are sufficient to produce this slightly improbable blanched leaf growth. I’ve done myself on a small scale and it’s really quite magical.
Just to add to the linguistic confusion, the strikingly beautiful red-leaved, white veined varieties are frequently called radicchio, whether they are loose-leaved or not, as with ‘Rossa di Treviso’ and ‘Palla Rossa’ respectively. This colour intensifies once the weather gets colder. Some of these are robust enough to be grilled or braised. Their bitterness is refreshing when balanced with other flavours. The sweetness of balsamic vinegar is an obvious foil but it also works well with salty cheeses, the richness of cream and the fattiness and smokiness of bacon.
Also very much worth investigation are the green and red variegated types. ‘Variegata di Lusia’ is similar to ‘Palla Rossa’ in form. ‘Variegata di Castelfranco’ is looser in habit and very handsome indeed – the inner leaves are blanched yellow but are covered in red flecks like paint splashes. Last up, and rather different, are the Catalogna varieties, which have upright leaves like a dandelion. ‘Puntarelle Brindisina’, from the heel of Italy, is particularly special – once mature, it produces juicy fat shoots, which are in fact the immature flower spikes. Franchi Seeds of Italy is the place to go for chicory seed.
There are a few reasons why I am growing so much chicory this year. Firstly, I discovered last season just how well it grows in this particular garden. I also feel it’s good to get more than one crop a year out of any given bit of ground, provided that you return the nutrients in the form of compost or other well-rotted organic matter at some point over the twelve months. Filling ground up with crops is preferable to leaving it bare: fewer of those nutrients are leached away by winter rains when the soil is covered by plants and held together by their roots. It is also harder for weeds to colonise.
Then there’s the fact that chicories are such a useful crop, since they provides welcome salad leaves from autumn right through till early spring, if you stagger your sowing and choose varieties that mature at different speeds. It’s my aim to send produce to Fifteen Restaurant all year round, not just during the summer/early autumn peak. This crop fits really neatly into the annual rotation. I sow into modules throughout July and then plant out in August and early September into ground recently vacated by broad beans, garlic or potatoes. They are not particularly difficult to grow or fussy about soil type and they are very hardy. Lastly, decent heads of chicory are really expensive to buy, so I expect Fifteen will be happy to have some freebies.