Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Endives don't come easy

Endives don't come easy
By Richard Bammer
Posted: 09/23/2009

The endive (pronounced "Ohn-deeve") is the offspring of chicory, a lettuce-like plant (Chichorium intybus) of the composite family (radicchio, escarole, daisy, thistle, artichoke and chrysanthemum); it is somewhat bitter and its curled, narrow leaves are cooked or blanched and used for salads and appetizers. It never needs to be washed.

The somewhat bitter vegetable was discovered accidentally in the winter of 1830 in Belgium. A farmer forgot about some chicory roots he had in a cool, dark cellar. He intended to use them as a coffee substitute. However, by early spring of the next year, he noticed carrot-shaped roots had sprouted small, tapered buds at the top. Endives became a popular food in Belgium, Holland and northern France.

At California Vegetable Specialties in Rio Vista, the only place in the United States where endives are grown, production begins in the spring. Seeds are sown at a couple of farms, one in the Central Valley, the other in southern Oregon.

When fall and winter come, mechanized harvesting machines top the plants and dig up the roots. They are trucked to CVS, where they are packed tightly upright in 3-by-4-foot wooden trays and placed in temperature-controlled cold storage, dark and humid rooms, fertilized daily and grown hydroponically, that is, without soil. After a few weeks in the "forcing rooms," roots sprout. The small, bullet-shaped head grows atop the root.

The so-called California Pearl variety is a creamy yellow-white, the result of its growing in complete darkness. The company also grows two red endives. Belles Rouges is a cross with Treviso, a red chicory, and white endive. Endigia is a deep red variety, a cross between white endive and chioggia chicories from northwestern Italy.

Company president Richard Collins grows the Belgian variety at CVS.