East Riding's chicory success
PUBLISHED: 12:50 06 January 2010 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013
The French, Belgians and Italians love theirs, and now a home-grown version has arrived on British supermarket shelves. Enter the Yorkshire endive - or chicory if you prefer. John Woodcock reports. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOAN RUSSELL
A label on a bottle has, until now, been Cichorium intybus's main source of recognition among British consumers. What is it? Think Camp, and a picture of a kilted Highland soldier having a cuppa with a Sikh outside a military tent in the colonial era. Mixed with coffee essence, you have what has been chicory's most familiar role here since 1885.
That was Mark Southwell's acquaintance with the vegetable, until he joined an East Riding food producer. Iced coffee made with Camp remains one of his favourite beverages, but nowadays he takes a far greater interest in chicory. 'I had never knowingly eaten it until I came here,' he says. 'The country as a whole hasn't been educated about chicory.'
Despite that it is emerging as a niche crop, and Southwell's employer, Scholes of Driffield, is one of only two producers in the country growing it commercially for a UK market awakening to its much wider merits. Chicory has long been popular on the Continent - where it's known as endive - particularly in Belgium, France and Italy, and not least because of its versatility. It can be used in salads and stir-fries, it can also be braised or roasted.
During a recent visit to The Ivy restaurant in London, Southwell discovered its creamyyellow leaves supporting his mackerel starter. In that case the chicory may have been imported, but now a version saying 'Grown in Yorkshire' has become increasingly available. In April, Morrisons, the Bradford-based supermarket chain, began selling Scholes' almost entire output. At the moment, that involves about 6,000 punnets a week, equivalent to 1.5 tons, grown from seed in two fields on the Wolds. Production can be increased and Southwell, the firm's sales and marketing executive, is negotiating with other national retailers keen to have a share of chicory's increasing status, aided by its inclusion in the recipes of several leading chefs.
The farming business started by John Scholes with just 10 acres in 1967 has grown to 6,000 and an annual turnover of around 12m, and is an industry awardwinner. It is now run by the founder's son and daughter, Richard and Rachel, who decided to be less dependent on potatoes and cereals and diversify into new markets.
Last year, after much research which took into account dietary trends, environmental issues and local growing conditions, they began producing niche vegetables such as flageolet beans, eight varieties of squash, pumpkin, and shelled peas. But chicory, with its distinctive peppery taste, is the most challenging crop in terms of the production methods involved.
The Scholes went to Holland and Belgium to see how they do it and then planted a variety called Vintor. The seed is about the size of a needle tip and sown, one at a time, using a vacuum-powered precision drill. Once the root has developed the natural cycle of the plant is broken and the root is harvested in the autumn and placed into cold storage until required.
To produce a saleable product the second phase of the life cycle has to be artificially created through a 'forcing' process. The root is stimulated by hydroponics, a system which enables the plant to grow without soil, in this case by using a mixture of water and nutrients. The procedure takes up to 24 days in four large steel pods housed in a former grain store, and has to be strictly controlled to protect the end result's flavour, shape and colour.
Maintaining the correct temperature and humidity is crucial, and the environment is virtually light-free. During the cycle the plant develops from a small tufted individual - in their lined ranks among the darkened shelves they resemble a culinary version of the Terracotta Army - into vividly coloured chicory of tightly-packed leaves which together resemble a large and illuminated candle bulb.
Later the root is removed and used for animal feed, leaving the 'chicon', or head Morrisons have been selling them at 1.29 a pair, which seems pretty good value considering the complexity of production, chicory's nutritional value, and its increasing cache on supermarket shelves and elsewhere.
Another advantage of the techniques Scholes have devised is that chicory is no longer seasonal, but available throughout the year. As an example of how neglected the vegetable has been in the UK, until recently we ate only 750 grams per year per capita head, compared with 8 kilos per head in other parts of Europe.
Among those helping to promote it here is Rachel Green, a fervent supporter of British produce whose TV cookery credits include programmes such as Flying Cook,World On A Plate, and Kill It, Cook It, Eat It. She has teamed up with Scholes as a consultant on recipe development. Among her creations is roasted salmon with chicory, mustard, ginger and orange salad.
You won't get a coffee-like high from eating it because as a vegetable, chicory's caffeine content is discarded with the root. But you may get a buzz out of discovering an unfamiliar taste. As Rachel Scholes puts it: 'Many people will know us for our background in potatoes but we feel really strongly about moving forward with new and very distinctive products.' For recipes developed by Rachel Green click on www.scholes-ltd.co.uk