It seems that quite a few of our favourite food items started life as something of an accident. Take, for example, our morning bowl of cornflakes, crisps, or the tender stems of pale rhubarb so beloved in crumbles. Each was discovered through absent-mindedness or, in the case of crisps, an awkward customer demanding ever crispier chips (after repeated complaints the particularly hard-to-please diner was sent wafer-thin sliced and fried potato, liberally doused in salt, presumably in a covert attempt to silence the chef’s critic. Of course, the customer loved the salty snack and the rest, as they say, is history).
Another gourmet delight born of a quirk of history is forced chicory. Like rhubarb, chicory can be ‘forced’ by removing mature roots to a warm, dark place in order to coax them into rapid and early growth. Why? Because what follows is a more tender, sweeter and altogether sumptuous experience than would otherwise be had. It’s a dark art, but a magnificent one!
It was a Belgian farmer who discovered the joy of forced chicory almost 200 years ago. Growing chicory roots for grinding as a cheap substitute for coffee he noticed that some of his cellar-stored roots had sprouted. On tasting a few of the pale-white leaves he found them to be crunchy and sweet. Within a couple of decades forced chicory had taken off as a creamy, crisp delicacy.
The tightly cupped heads of pale leaves that result from forcing chicory are called ‘chicons’ and bear a passing resemblance to small cos lettuces. Now is the time to force them and, given enough roots and a little planning, there’s no reason why you couldn’t stagger the forcing process to enjoy chicons throughout winter.
Having never forced chicory myself I picked the brains of organic gardener, writer and lecturer Val Bourne for her tips on growing them. Val grows chicory in her Cotswold garden where the higher elevation can lead to harsher, snowier winters than your average English country garden. Frozen-solid ground and thick carpets of snow are not exactly conducive to freshly dug roots or winter salads, no matter how hardy they are! For Val, indoor-forced chicons are often the only fresh, home-grown winter vegetable available during a cold snap – a real saviour when everything outdoors is ice hard.
Val recommends the F1 hybrid ‘Witloof’, which has consistently given her thick, fat chicons. She grates the crunchy, bittersweet leaves into salads or cuts them in half to braise and dish up with bland meats such as chicken. The leaves take on a slightly more bitter taste when cooked, serving the perfect counterpoint to creamy chicken dishes.
Before the chicons, however, you’ll need to grow the roots. Chicory can be sown directly into the ground but a savvier solution is to start the plants off in pots before planting them outside at their final spacings. Val sows a few seeds directly into 7.5cm (3in) pots of multipurpose compost, thinning to one seedling per pot. These are then planted out to follow hot on the heels of the likes of early potatoes or broad beans. In this way space is maximised at a time of year when there’s plenty else to be growing.
Sow towards the end of spring or in the first few weeks of summer; any earlier and the plants will be liable to run to seed, resulting in inferior roots. Chicory produces a strong, solid taproot, so the young plants will need to be set out promptly, usually four to six weeks after sowing. Position the plants in well-drained soil that enjoys a sunny location, about 15-20cm (6-8in) apart in rows spaced 30cm (12in) distant.
Chicory is from the same family as dandelions, so the plants can look surprisingly like their weedy cousin. Both have a taproot and it is from this root that the chicons come later on in the year. Keep plants free of all weeds once planted.
Lifting and Forcing Chicory
The roots are ready for lifting from early winter when they should be given, in Val’s words, ‘a punk haircut’ or in gardener’s terms: cut the foliage off to within 2cm (1in) of the top of the root. You can lift a few roots at a time, or dig up and trim the entire crop, storing the roots horizontally in boxes of sand kept in a dark, cool but frost-free place until needed (for example an outdoor shed).
Val has a simple strategy that involves forcing two batches of chicons at any one time, with one set being brought indoors and the other held back in the greenhouse to stagger the harvests. She plants three to four roots into a 22cm (10in)-diameter pot. Old, spent compost is fine for this as the growth will be coming from the roots themselves rather than the surrounding planting medium. Cover the roots with a bucket or similar-sized container, ensuring that any drainage holes on the covering pot are completely sealed. It is paramount that even the slightest shard of light is excluded from the roots; light will turn your chicons bitter. To be double sure it’s worth placing your chicory in a cupboard or similar dark corner.
To force, maintain a warmish temperature, say 15°C (59°F), and keep the compost damp but never wet. Check the chicory periodically for any errant lodgers – slugs and the like – and remove any you spot. The chicons should be ready to cut within about a month. To harvest, use a sharp knife to cut into and across the top of the root in order to keep the leaves together.
Val has inspired me to give forced chicory it a go. Any fresh leaves in the depths of winter will be a real boon in the kitchen and you don’t get more chic than a chicon.
By Benedict Vanheems. Photo at top of page courtesy of D.T. Brown Seeds.