I’ve long been fascinated by the practices of forcing and blanching in the garden. Over the years, I’ve stuck pots on top of various plants – chicory, endive, sea kale and dandelion – in an attempt to sweeten, tenderise and weirdly beautify them, with wonderfully mixed results . If that were not peculiar enough, to celebrate my birthday last year I dragged some London friends up to a shed in West Yorkshire to watch rhubarb grow. In the dark. Better than watching paint dry in the dark any day.
This inspired me to greater forcing efforts, so this year we agreed to attempt chicory inside in the winter. The plants have been let to grow big and bold out in the field all summer, flummoxing visitors who nervously asked what we were doing growing giant dandelions. Last week, we dug them up and brought them in. On Thursday, we set to heading back the luxuriant leaf and elephantine roots, until they fit snuggly into nine-inch pots of sand, to be perched on trollies and wheeled into a dark and conspicuously godforsaken corner of the garage.
There are the Belgians (“Dura Whitloof”) and the Italians (“Rossa di Treviso”) , and both sets will be steadily brought into a warmer location: the glasshouse, or the classroom, or kitchen. Exactly where will largely depend on when and how Huf gets the wood-fuelled boiler running. A few weeks of coziness will prompt them into producing the pale “chicons” so valued as a winter salad on the continent.
There felt something unexpectedly timely about all this: the discarding of the green; the impositions of new, indoor circumstances; and the casting into the deep unfathomable darkness, with the hope that some alchemic transformation would bring sooner supernatural sweetness.
These chicons glimmer bright beyond us, something bright to anticipate, like the festive season itself.