COLUMN: From darkness to delicacy in just three weeks

Witloof, a Belgian endive, has helped an Abbotsford business grow into a success story

Witloof packaged and ready for shipping to market.

Witloof packaged and ready for shipping to market.

Faces, Places and Traces by Mark Rushton

Witloof? Never heard of it until I decided to investigate what was behind the sign that reads “I (heart) Endive” alongside the freeway a kilometre or so before the No. 3 Road overpass.

Behind that sign is a very large rectangular warehouse which is the largest producer of Belgian endive in Canada – a vegetable that after accidental discovery more than 175 years ago, is considered a gourmet delicacy.

In fact, says one of the company principals Peter Reus, it is still a niche market. Van Eekelen Enterprises, named after and operated by Peter’s wife, distributes their product throughout the Lower Mainland, the Prairie provinces and into Washington and Oregon.

What is more interesting than a homegrown business success story is how the product is grown.

It was first discovered by a Belgian farmer when he stored some chicory roots in a dark, damp cellar, only to find later that they had sprouted white shoots. He broke one off, took a bite and found it most edible. It became the rage in Brussels and in Paris, where it was deemed “white gold.”

And that’s where the term “witloof” originates – the white leaves of the plant topped by a golden hue.

The history of the plant, however, isn’t nearly as interesting as how it came to be a significant crop on the fields and processing plant of Sumas Prairie.

Back in 1978, recent immigrants Peter and wife Ria located in Maple Ridge. During a visit to Woodward’s department store in Vancouver, they saw imported witloof, with green rather than the fresh yellow tops, selling for $4 a pound.

Ria van Eekelen, from a long line of farming families, thought she could do better, and began producing endive in their two-and-a-half-acre field. The initial crop was a success but the soil was poor and growing was difficult.

By 1981, the lure of available prime growing land on Sumas Prairie brought them to Abbotsford.

In the late 1970s, the vast 2,500-acre Buckerfield’s farm was sold off to a number of Abbotsford investors who divided up the many parcels of the farm.

Peter and Ria initially purchased 150 acres to pursue their dream of growing Belgian endive.

At the same time, Peter was developing his own company – Prins Greenhouses – which designs and builds greenhouses throughout the Lower Mainland.

From the original purchase, van Eekelen Enterprises has now expanded to 600 acres, and in addition to witloof, grows cereal grains, leeks, cole crops, peas and beans.

It is the endive, however, that is the defining product.

Planted as a seed in May, the leafy growth is trimmed off in October and the thousands of roots are harvested, and after a cooling bath, are stored in the dark, in huge crates, at -2 C.

After a number of months, and even up to a year later, when product demands calls for witloof, the roots are taken out of cold storage dormancy, given a warm bath to stimulate growth and then returned to darkness. The roots are placed in small containers and fed hydroponically in closely monitored conditions.

Miraculously, from a bare root, hair-like shoots quickly grow, and within just three weeks, the six-inch witloof sprout is ready to harvest.

Hand-removed from the root in the immaculate packing area, the endive is placed in boxes in groups of 24, lined and covered with black paper, and shipped in refrigerated transport (truck and plane) to customers far and wide. The remaining roots are sent to local dairy farms as cattle feed.

Witloof adds a deliciously bitter tang to salads, but can be used in a variety of dishes, both raw and cooked.

In fact, the company maintains two websites, one devoted to recipes – endive.ca – and witloof.ca.

Check them out, as well as learn more about this very successful contributor to Abbotsford’s vibrant agricultural economy.

And be sure to try some of their witloof. Your gourmet palate won’t be disappointed.

markrushton@abbynews.com