Fanie van der Merwe is a man who knows a thing or two about working the land. His forebears landed in the Cape in 1743 and for the past 10 generations his kin have farmed in the cold, high valleys of the Koue Bokkeveld, the mountainous region stretching north of the fertile Ceres valley. With searing heat in summer and a flurry of snow in winter, it’s a hard and unforgiving place to be a farmer.
But even Fanie chuckles when I ask him how easy it is to grow witlof, the leafy lettuce-like vegetable much-loved in northern Europe that is slowly making inroads onto local supermarket shelves.
“If you Google witlof you’ll discover two things,” says Fanie. “First, it’s a vegetable. Second, it’s extremely difficult to grow!”
But I get the sense that Fanie likes nothing more than a challenge.
Bronaar Farms, of which van der Merwe is the Managing Director, stretches across 3000 hectares of the Koue Bokkeveled, on the southern reaches of the scenic Cederberg mountain range, with 400 hectares of export fruit orchards and vegetable fields under irrigation.
“We know how to farm fruit and vegetables,” says Fanie. “A few years ago I thought, it’s time for something new.”
That something was witlof – Cichorium endivia – the leafy vegetable also commonly known as Belgian endive. In 2013 Fanie took the plunge and Bronaar constructed a dedicated production facility, and planted the first witlof seeds in the wide-open Bokkeveld fields.
For witlof is nothing if not an unusual vegetable, seemingly designed to challenge and frustrate farmers.
“Witlof is a vegetable that grows twice,” explains Fanie, the bright winter sunshine streaming in across the fields. “The first phase is planting in the field, and there for every 100 seeds we plant only 30 will germinate.”
Those that do will spend the next five to six months in the field, from mid-summer to early winter. Above ground the leaves are rough and spinach-like, while below ground the all-important chicory root is forming.
“Witlof requires a very specific set of climatic conditions, which is why you can only grow it successfully here in the Bokkeveld,” adds Fanie. “During the last two months of the growing process it needs extreme frost and cold. The plant basically dies, and then we harvest the roots in the cold of winter.”
The root is key to the process, and from the field the harvested roots are taken to cold storage. Here they are frozen to -1.5°C, putting them into hibernation. After a week below zero, they are slowly defrosted in a cold room, before being allowed to grow for the second time. It’s here that the magic happens.
The roots are stacked in hydroponic pallets, and over three weeks the ever-warming humid environment forces the root to push out the leafy white chicon that will eventually end up on your kitchen counter.
“This secondary process must all take place entirely in the dark. If you expose the root and the chicon to too much light it goes green and bitter,” adds Fanie, walking me through the farm’s impressive hydroponic facility. “I love the fact that it’s such a pure product. Once the roots are in the cold rooms nothing is added to them or sprayed on them. It just grows, all by itself, in the dark.”
After three weeks of growth – and around seven months since the seeds were first planted in the field – the pallets are removed from the cold rooms for harvesting, with a team of skilled workers trimming, weighing and packaging the witlof. Coming soon to a supermarket near you.
While the Bronaar facility can produce up to five tons of witlof each week, it’s currently producing just one-fifth of that, as local palates slowly discover this staple vegetable of northern Europe. I’ve often seen it on my supermarket shelf, but was unsure what to do with it.
For help, I hopped back in my car and head to Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. Doekle Vlietman was the man I needed to speak to.
Born to Dutch parents, and with his early career spent in the kitchens of an Amsterdam hotel, who better to talk me through the finer points of cooking this staple ingredient of European kitchens than the head chef of Den Anker Belgian Restaurant?
With one of the best locations the Waterfront has to offer, the consistently good food – and wide range of Belgian beers – has seen the restaurant draw a loyal crowd of locals and tourists since it opened its doors in 1994.
Den Anker’s menu is rooted in classic Belgian cuisine, with recipes tweaked and modernised for a South African palate, and their classic witlof dish is a must for hungry diners.
Wrapped in ham and roasted, the tender witlof is plated with mashed potato, covered in a velvety cheese sauce and topped with a gratinée of 10-month matured Dutch Gouda.
“It’s a hearty dish, the type of food your mother would put on the table in Belgium,” smiles Vlietman.
That’s well and good on a rainy winter’s day, but in summer the kitchen had to get creative to add a South African spin to Cichorium endivia.
“When we stated working more with witlof we looked at what would go well with it in summer, and goat’s cheese is the perfect accompaniment,” says Vlietman. “Chevin cheese is creamy and it’s bold. It goes very well with the witlof. We add a bit of honey for sweetness, and nuts for texture.”
From slow-baked to salads, “witlof is an incredibly versatile ingredient,” adds Vlietman. “It’s crunchy and it holds its shape well. It has flavour, but it’s not overly powerful. There’s a bitterness to witlof, but there’s also a sweetness to the leaf.”
While leafy Cichorium endivia may still be something of an oddity on local shelves, with any luck it won’t stay that way for long. In the slipstream of kale, pak choi and okra, perhaps locally grown witlof should be the new veggie finding a permanent home in your fridge.