Chicory, a Belgian story


Chicory and Belgium have a history as long as that of the country, ever since a legend dating back to 1830 which attributes its origin to chance. A farmer in Schaerbeek wanted to protect his chicory harvest during the September revolution by hiding it in a cellar and covering it with soil. When things calmed down and he dug up his buried treasure, he discovered that strange white leaves had grown - a new vegetable was born.


Officially, however, it was Frank Bresiers, the chief gardener of the Botanical Garden, now in Meise but at the time located in the centre of Brussels, as evidenced by the name of the district, who was at the origin of the curious and valuable white-leafed vegetable ("witloof" in Dutch). It owes its lack of colour to being grown in the dark: no light equals no photosynthesis and therefore no "greenness". Thanks to patient selection work and the development of forced cultivation techniques, it took Bresiers a few decades to develop a real, firm vegetable with tightly packed leaves. Finally in 1867, the first witloofs (its very first popular name in Flemish) appeared on the markets of Brussels. They owe the name chicory to that of their distant wild ancestors, cichorium intybus.


With urbanisation, the crops moved away from Schaerbeek, first to Evere, although it has now spread throughout Flemish Brabant. A hotel in Evere, "La Ferme aux Chicons" (The Chicory Farm), bears witness to the first relocation of the vegetable; while a restaurant, "Les trois Chicons", in the popular district in central Brussels, offers a chicory-based menu from aperitif to dessert, recalling its origin. It has also inspired traditional Belgian dishes such as the famous chicory gratin and Brabant-style pheasant.