Belgian endive: profile, harvest & uses

Regina
Regina
Regina
Regina

I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

Do you miss your harvest of home-grown leaves during the cold, dark months of winter? If so, then Belgian endive could be the answer.

Witloof chicory vegetable
Belgian endive provides a welcome winter dose of fresh nutritious leaves [Photo: barmalini/ Shutterstock.com]

The bitter green leaves and striking blue flowers of common chicory are a beautiful and beneficial addition to the garden. But did you know that these plants also possess a hidden treasure? With a little time and perseverance their roots will provide you with a true winter delicacy, Belgian endive (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum). Read on to find out more about growing, harvesting and eating this little-known variety of chicory.

Belgian endive: origin and characteristics

Belgian endive (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum) is a witloof (white leaf) chicory in the Asteraceae family. Given the right conditions, it forms compact, dense heads of pale-yellow leaves or ‘chicons’ from the root. According to popular legend, it was discovered in the 1830s by a Belgian farmer. He saw that chicory roots, stored for coffee-making, produced new and extremely delicious shoots. By 1850, Monsieur Brezier of Brussels’ Botanical Gardens was refining the process using a dark, warm and humid environment. Nowadays, you may hear this variety referred to as chicons, witloof (or witlof), Belgian or French endive, Brussels witloof or simply chicory.

A blue chicory flower
The chicory plant’s astonishing blue flowers wilt soon after pollination [Photo: Irisha_S/ Shutterstock.com]

Other varieties of common chicory include radicchio, sugarloaf and catalogna (or puntarelle). Despite having the same botanical name, the different varieties vary in colour, habit, uses and growing requirements. Read our in-depth article on the chicory family to find out more.

What is the difference between lettuce, chicory and endive? There is some confusion surrounding chicory, endive and lettuce. All three belong to the same family, Asteraceae. Chicory (Cichorium intybus) and endive (Cichorium endivia) are separate species in the Cichorium genus. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is in a separate genus altogether and has a different growing season. Lettuce lacks the distinctive bitter taste of both chicory and endive. Chicories have a lower water content and therefore store well. Their leaves are glossy and are less susceptible to mildew and root aphids, making them easier to grow in late summer and autumn.

Cichorium intybus in a field
Chicory can also be easily mistaken for dandelion, to which it is related [Photo: Deyan Georgiev/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting and propagation

Unlike other varieties of chicory, Belgian endive is grown ‘twice’; once for the root and once to force a chicon from the root. For best results, sow chicory seeds of the witloof variety in May and June. See our dedicated article for more information on planting chicory. In November, harvest and store the roots in a warm, dark environment. This process is called ‘forcing’. The absence of light gives the Belgian endive a distinctive pale colour and surprisingly sweet flavour. This is known as ‘blanching’.

How to force chicory

Nowadays, Belgian endive is commercially grown year-round on hydroponic trays in dark warehouses. The traditional method is slow, labour intensive and highly seasonal and has a fascinating heritage. You can replicate this beautiful and mysterious process in your own garden with a little time and effort. The choice of Belgian endive seed is limited in the UK, but one good witloof variety such as Holland Early or Brussels Witloof is all you need for a successful crop. An F1 variety such as Zoom or Bingo will give uniform, vigorous growth but remember that these hybrid varieties cannot be used to save your own seeds.

Belgian endive ready to harvest
Kept in total darkness, the leaves of Belgian endive will retain their distinctive hue [Photo: Martin Bergsma/ Shutterstock.com]

How to force chicory step-by-step:

  • In early winter, before temperatures reach -5 °C, lift the chicory root using a sharp spade. Remove old leaves to about 2cm above the crown.
  • Place the roots vertically 15–20cm apart in trays or pots filled with a mix of moist sand and compost, with the crowns still exposed. Well-rotted garden compost or a general-purpose compost such as our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost is ideal. Its open structure will keep the roots moist without waterlogging, making rotting less likely.
  • Place them in a completely dark shed or cellar. Cover with a bucket or some black plastic. The temperature of the storage space should be between 10–15 °C.
  • Keep an eye out for mice and get rid of slugs and snails too!
  • After about 2 weeks, pinch out a few of the smaller, developing chicons to allow some heads more space to grow larger.
  • After 3–6 weeks, harvest, store and eat.
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Propagation

As a biennial, chicory produces seeds in its second year. To harvest your own seeds, grow a chicory of the witloof variety as normal in year one. In mild regions the roots will overwinter in the ground until the second year. Alternatively, lift healthy roots and pack them in sand or compost. Store in a cool dark space (between 0 and 4 °C is ideal) and plant again in spring. Chicory grows to 1.5m in height and needs support. After the blue flowers are spent, harvest seed heads as they turn brown and leave to dry completely. Extract the tightly packed seeds by rubbing the pods firmly between your hands or apply some pressure with a rolling pin. Store in waterproof bags in a cold place or even a freezer. This way, the seeds can remain viable for 5 years.

Belgian endive seeds
Belgian endive seeds are 2–3mm in size [Photo: YamabikaY/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: thinking of saving your chicory seeds? They need to be pollinated by insects, but it is important that they are not cross-pollinated with other chicory species. So, avoid growing other chicory species near your Belgian endive plants. Find out more about the different types of pollination in our expert article.

Belgian endive harvest and storage

It takes about 250 days from seed sowing to the harvest of forced chicory. The time from planting roots in the dark to harvesting chicons is between 3 to 6 weeks. Heads are ready when they are at least 10 to 15cm long. Dense, tight heads store best. To harvest them, cut horizontally at the base with a sharp knife. Leave the roots in the pot after harvest as they can continue to resprout through the winter. Wrap the harvested heads in a damp tea towel and keep in the vegetable compartment of your fridge. They can keep for up to a month.

Coffee made from chicory root
The roots of chicory can also be used to make a nutritious coffee alternative [Photo: Ahanov Michael/ Shutterstock.com]

Chicory benefits and uses

Belgian endive contains vitamins, antioxidants and fibre. The root contains the prebiotic fibre inulin, which is thought to aid digestion and promote gut bacteria. Belgian endive tastes slightly bitter but is milder and sweeter than other chicories. When it comes to cooking, Belgian endive is versatile. It can be braised, roasted, fried or enjoyed raw in chicory salads. You can complement the bitter notes of Belgian endive with a honey salad dressing, whilst baking or roasting Belgian endive brings out its naturally sweet, nutty flavours. Why not try the beloved French and Belgian dish of chicory gratin?

A recipe for chicory salad
Many chicory recipes combine it with fruit or cheese [Photo: margouillat photo/ Shutterstock.com]

If you feel inspired to expand your range of winter salads, why not try growing winter purslane? It is a highly nutritious alternative to lettuce in the colder months. Discover all you need to know in our in-depth article on growing claytonia.

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