The Chicory Challenge

Cichorium intybus Gaulsheim
Chicory flowers - image courtesy of Manfred Heyde

Chicory is a tough, deep-rooted plant, similar to a dandelion, that can provide somewhat bitter but very flavoursome leaves in winter - and in a lovely range of colours and variegations too.

The challenge with chicory for the perennial vegetable grower is finding the perennial forms. In "Perennial Vegetables" Eric Toensmeier explains that the wild form of chicory may be biennial or perennial and cultivated varieties may be annual, biennial or perennial. Furthermore sometimes only some individuals within a variety may be perennial. Whilst annual and biennial forms will die after flowering, perennial forms will persist and survive the winter if they don't succumb to the cold and wet. The leaves however are unlikely to form a tight head in later years (they are also best picked when the plants are not in flower to avoid extreme bitterness).

Last year I embarked on trying to grow perennial cultivated chicories. It's useful to start with a list of varieties to try. In, "Plants for a Future" Ken Fern lists three, which are included in Martin Crawford's expanded list of eleven in, "How to Grow Perennial Vegetables". Both these writers are growing in the south-west of the UK so more useful to me was Alys Fowler's experiment in the Midlands where she grew a 'great sweep of Italian seeds' to see which ones would perennialise. Rossa di Treviso and Variegata di Castelfranco came out tops and reading this I decided to start by trying the former.

Below are some photos I took yesterday. Here in East Yorkshire (in quite an exposed spot on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds) some of the Rossa di Treviso plants have come through the winter fine.

Hardy chicory Rossa di Treviso
Hardy chicory Rossa di Treviso

Others less well!

Rossa di Treviso damaged by winter cold and wet
Rossa di Treviso damaged by winter cold and wet

The seed for these plants was sown in late summer and they grew well through the autumn with bigger leaves than in the pictures above. We enjoyed some leaves in mixed salads and braised with walnuts and goats cheese. But they are definitely less bitter after the first frosts - although the plants have smaller leaves to offer because the larger outer leaves tend to die away as winter progresses.

This year I'm planning to give Variegata di Castelfranco and Italiko Rosso
a try. Hopefully plants that get through one winter will survive a few and I can gradually build up a colourful chicory collection.

We had chicory for tea tonight. I adapted this recipe in Eric Toensmeier's book, using what we had available - which was leeks rather than red onions and dried White Emergo runner beans in place of cannelini beans.

White beans ready for cooking
I cooked the soaked beans earlier in the day

Chicory leaves, leeks, thyme, tarragon, red wine
The thyme and tarragon were lovely in this recipe

Chicory, beans and leeks frying
 Just a short while to fry the leeks, beans and chicory.

Chicory and beans in serving bowl
Wine, salt, tarragon and thyme mixed in.

I think I could eat this meal weekly through the winter. Stew finds the bitterness of chicory a bit of a challenge! He said he felt it needed something creamy added, such as feta cheese. So it was a shame really that I'd forgotten to serve it with the grated Parmesan that the recipe called for!

N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.