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Force chicory

19 December 2014

Force chicory for one of the finest gourmet treats of the winter kitchen garden. Now is prime chicon time, when these lettuce-like vegetables are at their delicate, bittersweet best.

Chicons are the forced shoots of chicory, usually 'Witloof' types which grow like densely-packed torpedoes. Made to grow in the dark, they produce tender heads of delicate, pale leaves with little of the bitterness of chicory grown outside. Braised slowly in white wine, butter and fresh thyme they're a taste of midwinter luxury.

Your chicory crop is ready to force once it's made roots at least 3cm across at the crown. Dig up the whole root and trim back the top growth to a 2.5cm stump. Then stand the roots five to a 25cm pot, closely-packed but not touching, and pack with damp sand or compost. The crowns should stand just proud of the surface. Cover the pot with an upside-down container (block drainage holes to exclude light) or put it somewhere very dark, and keep at a temperature of around 10°C.

Take a peep after four weeks and you should find a shoot appearing: once it's around 15cm tall, it's ready to cut. Leave the roots in the pot for a second crop a few weeks later.

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