A few weeks ago, I wrote a tidbit about crunchy & faintly bitter ‘witlof’ in a post featuring a delicious Summer red beet, apple & fennel slaw. Authentic ivory-colored Belgian endive tends to be expensive over here, but you can find the red variety in California fairly easily and at a much lower cost. In order for the leaves of ‘witlof’ to stay a pearly white, it needs to be grown and tended to in a dark, cool & temperature-controlled environment. With this wisdom uncovered, I’ve always been baffled as to why the USA seemingly can’t reproduce this elegant chicory variant, so a few years ago, I set out on a ‘witlof’ mission… Inspired by this beauty, which makes my Belgian heart pine for witlof each and every time:
Back then, my local ‘Henry’s produce & farmers market’ was kind enough to aide me in my quest to understand witlof pricing in the US, and summoned their Regional Purchasing Manager to explain a few chicory facts to me. As luck may have it, Mr. Roden happened to in town that morning, and showed up clasping a leather-bound file folder tightly in his arm pit, whilst gently cradling a white and a red chicory root in the palm of his aging hands. “The ‘real’ Belgian endive”, he says in a serious teacher tone of voice whilst holding up the all-ivory root, “has to be imported from Belgium”. He continues stating that it is usually packaged and shipped to the USA in 10 lbs boxes. Because the vegetables are exposed to sunlight during transport, it causes these tender delicate roots to develop their natural, greenish color. As a result, each box has to be unpacked upon arrival at the East Coast, with each individual root of ‘witlof’ needing to be stripped of its outer leaves by hand and subsequently repackaged to be distributed to the rest of the country. “All of this is very labor-intensive and thus costly”. I nod my head in agreement.
“Another cost-factor”, he continues, “is that much of the endive grown in Belgium is grown artisanally by a method called ‘forcing’”. In Belgium, many farms that grow endive use this labor-intensive agriculture which involves replanting the chicory root by hand. That replanting process, called ‘forcing’, must take place in a darkened, temperature-controlled room. Twenty-one days after the roots are planted, employees then crouch down on hands & knees, scrape the dirt off the endive and harvest it. I look bewildered. He continues that after decades of seed trials and piddling around, the USA managed to grow a red variety hydroponically (i.e. in water), eliminating the need for workers to hand-wash the dirt off of the roots and eliminating much of the shipping- & import costs. Unfortunately, growing endive still involves a costly production process that is labor intensive.
I thank Mr. Roden for his time in sharing his knowledge with me, and sheepishly add that I’m from Belgium and miss being able to afford Belgian endive now that I live on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. He shakes my hand firmly and promises that the red variety virtually has no difference in taste, which prompts my confession that the pearly white roots simply hold nostalgic value to me. I think I inadvertently struck a chord in the somewhat stern older man, because on my way out of the store, the clerk I spoke with earlier, stopped me in my tracks and handed me a bag of ‘real’ Belgian endive, “courtesy of Mr. Roden”, she winks with a smile.
With its faint bitterness, witlof is a bit of an acquired taste. However, paired with the sweetness of a ripe apple and the creamy sharpness of a marbled blue cheese, this bitterness dissipates and melds beautifully with the other flavors introduced in the salad.
BELGIAN ENDIVE SALAD WITH BLUE CHEESE AND WALNUTS
For the salad:
– 3 Belgian endives, washed and torn into individual leaves
– 1 sweet apple, peeled and sliced into thin wedges
– 4 oz of blue cheese, crumbled into chunks
– 1/3 cup of walnuts, roughly chopped
Peel & discard outer leaves of the endives. Remove inner leaves individually and arrange on a serving platter. Toss thinly sliced apple wedges over the endives and sprinkle crumbled blue cheese & chopped walnuts over the top. Drizzle dressing over the top.
For the dressing:
– ¼ cup of champagne vinegar
– ¾ cup of olive oil
– 2 tsp of Dijon mustard
– ½ tsp of fresh grated garlic
– 1 egg yolk, room temperature
– salt & pepper, to taste
In a non-reactive bowl, add vinegar, mustard, egg yolk & garlic and whisk until well-combined. Continue whisking and slowly pour in olive oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified. Season with salt & pepper to taste.