Entrepreneur Endive, or “white gold”, is now growing in the Free State
Endive is one of the healthiest and most versatile leaf vegetables, but also one of the toughest to grow. Thankfully, South Africa’s oldest family enterprise, Bronaar in the Koue Bokkeveld, is always willing to take up a challenge.
Let’s start with the bad news: that perfectly formed, fairly expensive creamy white and yellow-green torpedo-shaped leaf vegetable you may have noticed on supermarket shelves in the city under the name witlof, chicory or (Belgian) endive is available nowhere in the platteland. This despite the fact that Bronaar, the only farm in South Africa to grow endive – on a mere 10ha of land – is located near Op-die-Berg, a Lilliputian settlement on the R303 between Citrusdal and Ceres in the Western Cape.
And now for another snippet of not-so-great news: “Growing endive is a drawn-out, complicated and labourintensive process,” says Fanie van der Merwe, managing director at Bronaar.
Three years ago, Bronaar spent R7 million building a facility on the farm from where they hope to deliver approximately 5 tonnes of endive per week to the local market within the next five to 10 years, and to take over 2–5% of the salad market in the process.
And what do we tell Platteland readers who may be considering growing endive at home? Fanie gives a little laugh, shakes his head and emits a long sigh: “All I can say is, good luck. And Google. In that order.” (It’s not impossible – see our practical tips on page 94.) Because, says Fanie, what makes endive so very interesting and quite a difficult leaf vegetable is the fact that its root is the most important part. The be-all and end-all. The alpha and the omega. The bitter-sweet root cause of everything. A chance discovery
Belgian endive ( Cichorium intybus) is a member of the chicory family, which includes the leaf vegetables radicchio, escarole, frisée lettuce and curly endive, as well as the well-known chicory root sold as a cheap coffee substitute.
The endive that the Belgians call “white gold” (“Witlof” is Flemish for“white gold”; the SouthAfrican version of white gold is, of course,
more valuable. – Eds.) was accidentally discovered in the 1830s when a Belgian farmer, one Jan Lammers, forgot about the coffee chicory roots he had thrown into a dark barn. A few months later, they had developed into a torpedoshaped vegetable with knotty, crunchy, tightly packed leaves: creamy white on the underside, with a yellow to brightgreen shading towards the tips of the leaves. The vegetable was marketed commercially for the first time in 1846.
• Taste: Sweetish and slightly nutty, with a hint of bitterness similar to that of spinach and some lettuce leaves.
• Versatility: Endive is crispy and delicious eaten fresh, but just as tasty steamed, baked, grilled, boiled, fried or caramelised in anything from soups to stir-fries. (Don’t miss our seven recipes and ideas on page 96-102. If you’ve never cooked with endive before, now’s your chance to try it.)
• Health benefits: Endive is widely regarded as a superfood, as it contains
nutrients such as vitamin A, various B vitamins, vitamin K, potassium and calcium. It is also an immune booster, helps to control blood-sugar and cholesterol levels, helps to prevent osteoporosis and artherosclerosis, and keeps the digestive system in balance. From apples and pears… Bronaar farm forms part of the original Boplaas farm, which has belonged to the Van der Merwe family since 1743 and was demarcated in 1965 by Fanie’s father, Hauptfleisch.
Fanie and one of his four sisters, Hendrien (who is the financial director at Bronaar), are part of the 11th generation of the family in the Koue Bokkeveld and the ninth generation to farm here. This officially makes their farming enterprise the oldest familyrun one in South Africa.
On Bronaar and the three additional farms bought over the years, apples and pears (250ha in total) and onions (100ha) are the biggest crops. Over time, 50ha of potatoes have been added, along with the roughly 10ha of endive. When it comes to vegetables, Bronaar is involved in the entire value chain: they produce, pack and distribute via Bamco, a partnership they concluded with the Môrester and Donkerbos enterprises. In September, Bamco will open a massive fruit-packing facility.
The idea to grow a niche product such as endive was their own, says >
Fanie. “The unique climate of the Koue Bokkeveld inspired the late Kobus Kloppers from the company Endivia to approach me in 2002, 2003 with the idea of growing the vegetable for them. He had a small hydroponic facility in Stikland and it had simply become too expensive for him to import the roots.”
Fanie visited the Netherlands a few times with Kobus to see how things were done, but after five years of battling away, the directorship at Bronaar informed Fanie that his efforts were taking 20% of his time but made less than 2% of his turnover. He and Kobus parted company on good terms. Kobus passed away and his daughter continued with the business for some time, but eventually it came to an end. Yet Fanie continued to receive queries over the years, particularly from restaurants, and after a few more visits to the Netherlands he realised that the only way to farm endive profitably was to “establish and control the entire value chain”.
This year marks their third season and they are finally in a position to supply endive to the local market for 12 months of the year. “I call it a windgat product,” says Fanie. “A niche product. It’s one of a kind. It's different. No one on this farm had tasted endive before or knew anything about it, but now we all eat it, just like we’ve been eating apples all these years. Now, we just have to convince the rest of the country to try it too.”
Fanie van der Merwe, managing director.
This is what the endive plants look like two months after sowing, and on the right are two photos taken in the Bronaar onion-packing facility.
Jurine Joseph, here with Fanie, is one of 15 women who work at the Bronaar endive facility.