Thomas Cools

Ambassador of GOESTING

Thomas_Witloof small
Thomas Cools
Grondwitloof Familie Cools

Thomas Cools

Whenever his father wasn’t around, young Thomas would secretly dig the chicory out from its soil bed. “My fascination with chicory began at an early age. I still find it magical to dig away the black earth and uncover the bright white heads.” Meanwhile, Thomas has taken over his father’s business and is now one of only a few growers of ground chicory, or Brussels grondwitloof, a crop with a Protected Geographical Indication.

Brussels grondwitloof

The delicate white heads must be grown in and around Flemish Brabant, and the chicory must grow underground. Chicory grown using hydroponics, in water in heated cells, or Brabant grondwitloof, grown in, but not fully under the ground, does not count. Moreover, farmers are required to grow Brussels grondwitloof from their own seed. That is quite unusual. These days most people buy their seed, which has been manipulated to such an extent that it unsuitable for further cultivation. Every winter Thomas selects the best heads and leaves them to go to seed in the field. This seed is harvested, cleaned and planted again the following year. The circle is complete.

Chicory, a delicacy with depth

Thomas’ chicory tastes fresh and fruity, with a subtle hint of bitterness. “Back when my great-grandfather first started the business, people already praised his chicory’s sweetness. We’re still growing our own variant from back then, and its mild flavour continues to garner praise. Chicory is a vegetable you have to learn to love, but we are often told that in fact, children do like ours.” Such appreciation is welcome, as growing chicory is hard work. “We spend many hours on our knees, carefully arranging the chicory roots alongside one another in the soil and covering them with earth. To protect the chicory from temperature fluctuations, we insulate the beds with straw. If it gets cold, we add metal plates and even blankets. In the old days stoves were used to heat the beds. To keep them lit when it was freezing out, farmers had to get up multiple times a night. My grandfather liked his sleep and was one of the first to switch to electric heating. A transformer heats up copper wires buried under the beds. That stimulates the roots to start growing, even in the depth of winter. Chicory season begins in October and lasts till the middle of April.”


Chicory croquettes

"Growing in soil is also slower. If chicory is given enough time and not forced to ripen too fast, the resulting flavour is mellower, less bitter."

“As our chicory grows underground, the heads are more compact in texture than other types of chicory. I am convinced that the soil affects the flavour; every farmer’s chicory tastes different. Growing in soil is also slower. If chicory is given enough time and not forced to ripen too fast, the resulting flavour is mellower, less bitter.” When the chicory is dug out of the ground, it is covered in black earth. “Inside, we clean the chicory by removing its dirty outer leaves. Then we wrap it in blue paper as protection against the light. Light turns chicory green and that’s to be avoided at all costs.” During cleaning, many leaves get pulled off that have nothing wrong with them except a little dirt. “I thought it was too bad all those leaves were being thrown away as compost. I started thinking about other ways to put them to use. Soup was too simple. When my local chippy suggested croquettes, that sparked my interest. We set up a partnership with a manufacturer who turns our chicory waste into hand-rolled croquettes.”

You can buy these croquettes directly from the farm as well, like the chicory itself. “Direct sales are critical to our survival. The prices retailers are willing to pay are simply too low. Luckily, customers are increasingly aware of the value of quality products and are happy to visit our farm.”

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