Red As Any Blood

As autumn falls to winter, the quality of the rich low light and fiery tree leaves is utter consolation. In the veg garden, it is the “radicchio” types of chicory that do this job, and sometimes more. For, with every drop of temperature the foliage ignites further from anonymous green to striking scarlet, crimson, pinks and whites: livening up the tramp around what is now a drab muddy field; and also the salad mix.

In doing the latter, they are in some way appreciated, for their visual contribution at least. The cold, as with parsnips and Brussels sprouts, also brings out the sugars. Most people still find them bitter though, and we have to be careful to keep the relative proportion of chicory to other leaves at no more than 20 %. Given the number of chicory sceptics out there, someone with an eye for customer relations might advise growing even less, in answer to which I would point out their stunning shades, and the fact they stand really well in autumn and winter. But the truth of the matter is that we grow an awful lot of chicory here for no better reason than Jo and I bloody love it.

My better half alleges that my championing of Cichorium intybis stems from the same basic psychological disorder that lies behind my fanaticism for ferrets and Stevenage FC:  The Love of Unpopular Causes. This may work fine as an overarching theory, indeed I’ve asked for thirty-eight similar symptoms to be examined in this light, yet it neglects the complex set of interactions with the plant, that have led me to this place.

My earliest encounter was as a young boy: between the Johnie Walker and the Beefeater on the kitchen sideboard, stood a tin proporting to contain a bottle of CAMP Coffee. It was eye-catching, with its iconic image of a Highland soldier in full battle dress; in the background an Indian soldier and military canvas; and the immortal slogan “Ready Aye Ready”.

For most of its life the CAMP tin contained not the eponymous product, but digestive biscuits: its presence there was one of nostalgic symbolism. For my old man, it was an everyday reminder of the war years: the mobilisation to fight fascism; the postwar socialist project; and the comforts of shared hardships, wherein rations saw that CAMP replaced “real” coffee. The beverage uses chicory roots in place of beans.

Years later, after a particularly heavy night of discussion and debate at the European Social Forum, I found what I now believe to be a bunch of “Catalogna Frastagliata” on a Paris market stall. I bought the dandelionesque leaves out of curiosity, then ate them like it quenched a thirst. My battered liver craved the restorative greens. These events set the stage for the emergence of chicory as Winter’s Great Redeemer once I became a salad grower.

Redemption, that is, if you can keep it from rotting. Hailing from Veneto, Italy’s coldest region, cultivars like “Rossa di Treviso” and “Grumolo Rossa” relish a cold snap: it’s the dampness of our British winter – and our London clay – that they can’t stand. It’s fine on the terrace where we do successional cropping so the heads never get dense, but in the Entrance Field harvesting and cutting out soft rots is a combined mission, and by Christmas they’re all over bar the carolling, pink palms just a beautiful memory.

Not this year though, not this year. Cultural methods, cultivar choice and drier weather have combined to ensure we still have a fine red stand going into the festive salad bags, and out the other end. This is in no small part due to Aimee, whose early attentiveness to disease kept it in check, in the same way that Gary swashbucklingly fought off both red spider mite and tomato blight in the glasshouse. Not that she volunteered for these duties, but when she muttered “I don’t understand this chicory stuff” in summer, her fate was sealed: three months in chicory re-education camp. I like to think that, deep down, she’s grateful for it.

Deep down into the longest night we go again. At the midwinter social there were ends: goodbyes to the trainees, and a fond farewell to Mary the Fruit Worker. Things look bleak. The radicchio torches, in the bags and on the land, hold the fiery promise of a brighter tomorrow. Redemption? Ready Aye Ready.