The Ancient Egyptians tied chicory leaves together for two weeks before harvesting in order to obtain a white heart. This method still existed in the Middle Ages and chicory plants blanched in this manner were called endives.
In the early 19th century, market gardeners in Montreuil grew chicory in poorly lit caves, forcing the plants to grow tall in search of the light.
In 1850, a certain Frans Bréziers, head gardener of the Botanical Garden of Brussels, used this method, but he surrounded his chicory plants with a pile of soil. A few weeks later, he discovered endives with long white leaves. This new vegetable was given the name of chicon, witloof in Flemish, which means "white leaf".
The first endives, naturally produced by a market gardener from Brussels, appeared at the Les Halles market in Paris in 1879. This vegetable later came to be grown not only in Belgium but also in France (now the world's leading producer) and the Netherlands.
A few endive growers can be found in North America, in California and the east of the United States, and in the provinces of Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario in Canada.
The leaves of an endive should be tightly closed, and a good white color with yellow tips. Their texture should be firm and crisp. Yellow streaks on leaves and a red base mean oxidation, and therefore that it was cut several days before.
Endives can be found fresh, in cans or jars either in water or cooked, or vacuum packed.
Endives are used raw (chopped, in salad), and can also be cooked: braised, as a garnish, au gratin, served with ham and bechamel sauce, and in cream soups.
The base should be removed because this is where the bitterness is concentrated.
Endives will keep for 2–3 days in a cool room or refrigerator at 0–4ºC, without piling them up so as to prevent oxidation of the outer leaves. They should be covered in a damp cloth and protected from light as much as possible.
Endives contain few calories, but they are also low in vitamins and minerals. Industrial growing has not improved their nutritional qualities. They are basically made up of water (94%) and fiber.
Traditional cultivation methods involve sowing chicory plants in April and leaving them to grow in the open air until October. The plants are pulled when they have a 4 cm root. These are then placed in frames covered with felt and straw and placed over soil that has been heated in order to speed up the forçage process in which the endives are formed. They are harvested after 3 or 4 weeks.
Hydroponic forçage was developed in 1975 after a particular variety was perfected by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). The roots still grow in the ground, but they are pulled at 5 or 6 months. Cleaned and installed in dark chambers at 15–18ºC, the roots are immersed in nutritious baths in which the endives develop in three weeks. These endives have a higher water content than those grown traditionally, and have less flavor.
There are several varieties of endives, depending on the regions where they are produced (Northern France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy). Genetic engineering has resulted in modification of their flavor, making them less bitter.
Now, in order to spread out endive production, the roots pulled from the ground are stored in cool rooms for a duration between 8 days and 10 months before undergoing forçage.
There are five types of endives: extra-early in August, early in October, normal from December through February, late in April, and extra-late in May.
This explains why endives are now found throughout the year. They are no longer a seasonal vegetable, but their season used to be early fall through March.
This variety, perfected in Italy, is the result of crossing the white endive and a variety of red chicory, Chioggia.
It is sweeter, but it cannot be cooked or it will lose its color and characteristic flavor.