Endive has become quite popular as a salad green, but in America it's hard to know the difference between "endive" and "chicory." If you can't tell, you're not alone. Chicory has a long history of controversy, not the least of which is "Do you like chicory better in a salad or with your coffee?"
I like reading cookbooks, especially those that contain more history than recipes. Oh, i can learn quite a lot from TV food programs, like "Chopped", but I learn more from my collection of vintage cookbooks, most particularly The Menu Mystique, the Diner's Guide to Fine Food and Drink by Norman Odya Krohn, and FOOD, an authoritative visual history and dictionary of the foods of the world, by famed food writer, Waverly Root.
Lately, I've been browsing through a slender book, The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets by Aldo Buzzi, and I came across a chapter on Chicory. Now the word "chicory" was vaguely familiar, with emphasis on "vague", so I consulted my trusted books and here's what I found out about this quite popular, historic plant. It goes by many names - among them, Asparagus chicory, Belgian endive, Catalan chicory, Catalonia, French endive, Red endive and witloof chicory. But chicory is not just a vegetable to use as a salad green; it's also a coffee companion.
Chicory has a long, ancient history - recorded in Egypt, in the biblical times, and later in the Middle Ages. It's also been the root of much controvery over what constitutes "endive" vs. "chicory".
According to my cookbooks, there are two types of chicory. One, is used in salads - it's a leafy, curly vegetable, otherwise known as "Endive." The second type of chicory is a perennial, a blue-flowered plant that grows wild, and whose roots, when roasted, are used as a coffee substitute. The Menu Mystique reports that in France, most people prefer the blend of chicory and coffee beans. Voila! Of course, I'd heard of chicory before - in connection with the coffee I'd tasted in New Orleans at the Cafe Due Monde. How could I forget that savory, but ultra-strong, Cafe Au Lait?
Also hard to forget, once you get into the history of chicory, is the global dispute about the difference between true Endive and Chicory. Believe it or not, this is a subject people argue about quite seriously - France vs. Belgium vs. America, England and so on. i am not schooled enough to even offer an observation about who wins this argument. For now, I rely on author Waverly Root (his real name). Simply put, in his lengthy discussion about chicory, he writes, if you see "Endive" on the menu in America, it likely came from the wild plant, and not the European import.
As for chicory in coffee, Mr. Root reports it is popular in Europe, not because the ground-up root that is used is lesse expensive than coffee, but also because chicory tastes, well, Strong. Root says the Dutch created the first chicory coffee, before it became a specialty in Germany, where two of the main chicory varieties used for coffee are known as Magdeberg and Brunswick.
But there is even more to chicory than meets the eye.
Some people believed long ago that digging chicory up was a magical process. In the 19th Century, chicory was uprooted only with gold and silver coins. The ancient Druids, Mr. Root writes, are said to have dug for chicory while fasting.
Today, people "dig" chicory, and all its varieties, for a different reason - namely it is exotic-sounding, and its flavor is robust, fresh, a bit pungent and not so run-of-the-mill. That sounds like a winning combination to me.
Photo: Field Guide to Produce