A chef’s craft is all about balancing flavours, and the bitterness of chicory can play a part in a well-rounded recipe, says Russell Brown.
Modern science has shown that around 25% of the population are “super tasters”: people who have a double copy of a gene that makes them more responsive to bitter tastes. It is therefore no wonder that bitter leaves, such as chicory, can prove unpopular. Toxic items are generally bitter and our sense of taste and smell has evolved to protect us from consuming dangerous things. But conversely, as a species, we accept a degree of risk and, as such, have discovered a wider range of foods that are safe to eat – something that has contributed to the success of the human race.
Combine the genetics with a general move towards sweeter food and it makes vegetables and leaves that fall into the bitter spectrum a tough sell. Many plant breeders and growers are breeding out bitter flavours in food – the prevalence of the pink grapefruit as opposed to yellow is a case in point. On the other hand, where drinks are concerned, we actively seek out bitter tastes, and double-hopped IPAs, coffee and cocktails such as the Negroni are all hugely popular.
Generally, this aversion to bitter foods is an Anglo-Saxon trait. In Italy especially, bitter flavours are an intrinsic and popular part of the cuisine. Think aperitifs, a radicchio salad with walnuts, roast duck with cime di rapa, a bergamot pudding or a double espresso.
Forcing and blanching are two growing techniques that have evolved to reduce the bitterness in plants. Dandelion, for example, is often blanched by covering it with terracotta pots on a small scale or black polythene on a commercial basis. Rhubarb and chicory – also known as witloof or endive – are forced, which is somewhat different. For chicory, the plant is field-grown initially and forms a parsnip-like root with a very leafy top. The roots are lifted and the tops trimmed before moving to cold storage. Once this cycle is complete, the roots are moved to forcing sheds where the warmer temperature starts the new shoot, known as a chicon, growing. As with rhubarb, this is done in near darkness to prevent the head colouring and developing those bitter flavours. It takes around 21 days for the heads to reach a harvestable size, and for wholesale they are often wrapped in blue paper to block out the light.
The main UK grower is a company called DGM Growers in Lincolnshire and its produce is available from a number of UK supermarkets and wholesalers. The crop is available all year round, but it has particular relevance to the chef in winter when few other British leaves are available. The main season is considered to be November to April.
Balancing flavours is all part of the chef’s craft, and bitterness plays a hugely important part in the success of a dish. It often cleanses the palate and balances both sweetness and richness. Chicory is certainly versatile and it can be cooked or can be served raw. Thinly sliced it can be cooked down into a marmalade; it can also be braised or caramelised and it cooks well sous vide. Josh Eggleton, chef-proprietor at the Pony & Trap in Chew Magna, Bristol, uses soy sauce and orange juice to braise chicory, and José Pizarro in London pairs chicory with breaded goats’ cheese and clementines in a winter salad. Matt Budden, executive chef at Schpoons & Forx in Bournemouth, serves a salad of duck confit with both red and white chicory, watercress, Roquefort and a mustard dressing.
Buying and storage tips
- The key thing with chicory is to keep it refrigerated and in the dark.
- Heads should be firm and crisp.
- Avoid heads that are turning green or brown.
Italy, Holland and Belgium are the biggest suppliers of chicory, and it is available all year round. Dutch chicory is the most popular as it is better value for money; Belgian chicory is higher in quality but is a lot smaller and usually more expensive.
Yellow chicory is always cheaper than red as there is a lot more yellow leaf around. Chefs should look to pay around £2-£2.50 per kilo for yellow; the price of red, on the other hand, can change on a daily basis. For example, in the middle of December red chicory costs around £3.60 per kilo, but in January it can reach up to £10.30 a kilo.