Belgian Endives

Belgian or Witloof endive (Cichorium intybus), depending on how it is grown, is one of the few vegetables ready for eating from December to April.

The blanched spears or chicons are delicious in a green salad or baked under a white or cheese sauce. The slightly tart taste of the endive also goes well with sweet onion (see recipe for Grilled Endive and Onion Salad with Thyme Tarragon Vinaigrette).

Seeding takes place between April and early June. Belgian endive prefers a sunny site with a deep, rich, fast- draining soil. The seeds are sown 15 to 20 centimetres apart in rows 50 centimetres apart and covered with 1.25 centimetres of soil. Spacing can vary with the richness of the soil and your chosen method of cultivation. Keep the soil moist until germination and then water every two or three days depending on the heat of the summer and how quickly your soil dries out.

By September the plants will have sent up a rosette of large coarse leaves. In late October or early November the leaves should be cut off with a sharp knife just above the soil surface and the gardener is faced with the choice of leaving the endives in the ground or digging them up for forcing early regrowth.

At Ravenhill we usually leave the roots in the ground, but covered with a 15-centimetre layer of sawdust. The sawdust is kept in place by wooden boards or the base of a topless cold frame. Cedar sawdust is best avoided as well as any sawdust contaminated by preservatives. The sawdust can be reused for three or four years.

In late January the endives are checked for growth. Harvesting can begin when the chicons or blanched spears are 10 centimetres long.

The second method is to dig out the massive roots at the time the leaves are cut off. A former neighbour, George Rostoker, shortened the roots to 20 centimetres and tightly stacked them vertically in peat moss in large plastic buckets.

He stored these buckets in a cold, dark room. Three weeks before he wanted to harvest the endives he brought a bucket into a dark room at room temperature and fertilized the roots with a solution of 20-20-20. Feasting can start in late November and continue through the winter.

Leaving the roots in the ground means that they can be dug up after the harvest is over in April, a job that requires a double dig so that no fragments of root are left to regrow. Belgian endive does not appear to be attractive to insects or subject to disease. Seeds for Belgian endive are available from West Coast Seeds, and many nurseries.