By Heidi Lewis
August 25, 1830, at the Royal Theatre of the Mint in Brussels was an evening to remember. Famous tenor Adolphe Nourrit was belting out the stirring duet from the opera La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) about the “sacred love of the Fatherland,” which incited an already politically charged audience to riot. Belgians hit the streets where they sought and won independence from the Netherlands in an ensuing war. In 1871, Richard Wagner remarked about the opera: “Seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world event.”
War changes everything. Big things, but also little things. Jan Lammers, a Belgian farmer, returned to his farm after fighting in the 1830 revolution. He checked on his root cellar where he’d kept a stash of chicory and found it had blossomed in the dark into witloof (white leaf). Chicory is a wild leafy plant that has multiple uses; it was the root, however, that was cultivated by 19th century European citizens as a coffee substitute necessitated by Napoleon’s coffee embargo. Lammers’ discovery of tender tasty leaves that grow in the dark launched Belgian endive into Parisian culinary stardom.
The wonderful chicory family (Cichorium endivia) includes an array of sophisticated flavors: red, white, and curly endive; escarole; frisée; tardivo; and radicchio. Eaten raw, it’s mildly bitter with a sweet aftertaste, or it can be tamed to sweet by light cooking. Endive offers many taste and texture combinations. Try the leaves with a strong cheese like gorgonzola along with roasted walnuts and sliced pear. You can also use the sturdy endive leaf as an edible spoon to thoroughly enjoy herb dips and spreads—as the French would say, “Ne pas y aller avec le dos de la cuillí¨re!”—which literally translates to “not going at it with the back of the spoon” (in other words, not being timid in your approach).
Preparation: Cut the root end off, separate leaves, and shred, slice, or use whole. Use raw or braise or grill lightly.
Storage: It’s a good thing the light in the fridge goes off when you close the door, Endive likes it dark. Keep leaves tightly wrapped in a damp towel and use within three days.