Chicory plants have been popular in Italy since Roman Times, but are fairly new to this Country. There are several varieties available from different parts of Italy such as Treviso, Venice and Verona. One seed catalogue lists some 30 different varieties of chicory with different shapes, sizes and colours. While it is the leaves that are usually eaten, the roots can be roasted and ground up to create a substitute instant coffee, as was done in the war years.
Chicory is a perennial plant though probably more often grown as an annual. If allowed to reach the flowering stage, the flowers are of a vibrant blue colour. Chicory also has prominent stems and ribs to the leaves.
While there are two basic different types of Chicory, the French, Italians, and the British, refer to the different types with the same words, but different meanings! In an effort to clarify matters the two different types are:-
The salad leaves type of Chicory which are usually colourful and slightly bitter, but are very useful for salads, as they are hardier than lettuce.
One salad type can have an upright form, rather like a sugar loaf or a cos lettuce, where the large outer leaves naturally help to blanche the inner leaves, making them less bitter. This type should be harvested from the late Summer and over the Winter if given cloche protection.
There is another salad type but is a low growing form, often with red leaves. The outer leaves again provide a natural blanching of the inner leaves making them less bitter. This type should also be harvested from late Summer and over the Winter if given cloche protection. The cold Winter weather seems to intensify the red coloration.
You will frequently find them in bags of mixed salad leaves at the Supermarket.
The white bud type of forced Chicory, is where the Chicory is sown in the Spring, grown through the Summer and Autumn. It produces green edible leaves. At this stage the roots are usually lifted, the leaves are cut off, and the roots planted up in 25 cm pots of moist peat with the top of the root just above the surface. The pots are covered with another pot and then placed in a warm, dark place. The roots sprout a shoot or closed white bud of blanched white leaves in about three weeks, which are cut off for eating. The pots can be returned to the dark for a second crop of the white buds or “chicons”. The blanching makes them less bitter.
This system for growing forced chicory was discovered in Belgium in the early 1800’s and is known as Whitloof chicory. This type of culture is not often seen in the UK, as it requires a considerable amount of manual work and it probably not worth the effort unless you are particularly fond of it.
Sow either type in the late spring in situ, in drills 1 cm deep and 25 cm apart, with the drills 30 cm apart. Keep well watered with slug protection until they grow big enough to harvest. Provide cloche protection over the Winter.
Pests and diseases. It is the usual suspects of slugs and snails.
Suggested varieties for the salad type.
Upright form. Sugar loaf
Radichio. Rossa di Treviso. Rossa di Verona.
Suggested varieties for the forced Chicory.
Storage. They are best used fresh, but should keep for a few days in the fridge crispator.