For Britons of a certain age, the mention of chicory will probably rekindle memories of how it was used as a coffee substitute during the Second World War. That legacy lingers on in the use of chicory as a flavouring in some contemporary brands of coffee. In the UK, by contrast with continental Europe, chicory is not a very common ingredient in cooking.
That may change, however, with the unlikely collaboration between the Dutch Produce Association, an umbrella body for the fruit and vegetable sector in the Netherlands, and UK birth defects charity BDF Newlife.
The association is keen to increase sales of the vegetable in this country. It says chicory can be used raw in salads or as a cooked ingredient, and has launched a Chicory Challenge - a competition to find the best chicory recipe. BDF Newlife will be publicised as the popular charity for the challenge. Three shortlisted cooks will win an all-expenses-paid trip to the Netherlands, where the winner will be chosen. The winner will nominate which charity should receive a £5,000 donation, and if he or she has no preference the money will go to BDF Newlife.
This was no random choice. The charity, which carries out research into birth defects, advocates a healthy diet for women. Chicory contains folate, a source of folic acid, which is seen as a key nutritional requirement during pregnancy and has been shown to reduce the risk of defects such as spina bifida. For the past 12 years, BDF Newlife has recommended that women take folic acid before and in the early weeks of pregnancy.
The partnership had to be approved by the charity's medical panel before it could proceed. "We were pleased to have been selected as the preferred charity," says Sheila Brown, chief executive of BDF Newlife. "We have a long history of working to prevent inborn conditions through our pre-conceptual awareness campaign. Awareness about foods rich in folic acid is important."
The shortlisted cooks will take part in a 'cook-off' final in the Netherlands on 21 November. Representatives from BDF Newlife will form part of a panel that will choose the winner. Proceeds from the sales of a cookbook containing the chicory recipes will then be donated to the charity and will go towards grants for children disabled because of inborn conditions.
The partnership with the Dutch Produce Association also chimes with BDF Newlife's campaign for folic acid to be added to bread to ensure that women who get pregnant accidentally have good levels of folate in their diets. In partnership with nutrition consultancy The Food Doctor, the charity will soon launch a new type of loaf containing folic aid, which will be marketed exclusively to women.
The deadline for entering the Chicory Challenge is 12 October. Entries must be submitted through the website at www.chicorychallenge.co.uk.