In many respects, Wairarapa witloof is New Zealand’s witloof – as this is the only region in the country where the pale leafy vegetable is commercially grown.

Its mildly bitter and nutty taste is highly prized in parts of Europe. Called endive in France and Belgium, and sometimes referred to as chicory by the British, witloof is unlike any other vegetable and its unique flavour is gaining popularity in restaurants throughout started experimenting with witloof in Wairarapa in the 1980s, eventually selling his business to former employee Pieter Solleveld four years ago.

Masterton-based witloof growers, Pieter and Nelina Solleveld.

What makes witloof such a fascinating crop, Pieter says, is that it has two stages of production.
The first takes place outside, growing the seed through to a mature plant. The second is done inside – hydroponically – and entirely in the dark.

It is therefore not surprising to learn that witloof was first produced by accident. As the story goes, a Brussels farmer in 1830 stored witloof roots in his cellar, intending to dry and roast them for coffee (a common practice in 19th century Europe). But when he discovered that, after several months in the dark, the roots had sprouted small, white leaves, he took a bite and found them to be delicious. And so, a new taste was born. By the 1870s, Parisians were calling witloof ‘white gold’.

Pieter applies much of the same principles, although has a lot more control over production than did the unsuspecting Belgian farmer nearly 200 years ago. He grows the plant in Greytown, where he owns 17 hectares and also leases another block to ensure enough available land to maintain a five-year rotation cycle, essential for removing the risk of disease.

All of the seed is imported from Holland and France. With 5 hectares to plant, it is a considerable investment. Seeds are planted only 10mm deep in very finely worked soil. Too dry, and the seeds won’t germinate. It’s also essential the seeds all germinate at the same time and grow at the same rate.

“The seeds are just too expensive to get it wrong, so irrigation is vital. Without [water], germination could be perhaps just 30 per cent, and you just can’t afford that.”

Planting is done late in the year, to avoid frosts. After about 22 weeks, the roots are dug up and the leafy green tops (too bitter to be eaten) cut off. The roots are transported up to Solleveld Produce’s headquarters, west of Masterton, where they are graded and then shut away in storage at -1°C. Roots can be stored for up to 12 months.

The roots are then cleaned, planted upright in trays and moved to dark rooms where they are fed a hydroponic mix of nitrates, with calcium, potassium and other trace elements. In the dark, over the next 19-22 days, the roots sprout fat, pale yellow spears of tightly packed leaves. These are then cut, packed and put into cold storage ready for market.

Witloof is available year round. Much of the crop is exported to French Polynesia and New Caledonia, and provided to cruise ships, restaurants and supermarkets in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch.

Witloof is often enjoyed raw in a salad, adding a great crunchy texture. 

Story by Walt Dickson

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