VISITORS TO PHILLIP ISLAND can’t fail to notice the numerous unusual small brick towers dotted about the island. They stand as enigmatic reminders of one part of Phillip Island’s agrarian past.
These commonly run-down but appealing structures are chicory kilns, once used in drying chicory dock – a parsnip-like root plant that was grown widely in Phillip Island’s rich volcanic soil.
Chicory, Witloof or Cichorium intybus, was cultivated on Phillip Island for nearly 100 years from the 1870s.
After picking, the chicory roots were sliced and dried in the kilns, then ground into a fine powder. From this was made a tangy and slightly bitter-tasting caramelised essence, which was commonly added to coffee or used as a substitute.
In the early part of last century, because it was cheap and coffee was expensive, chicory was quite popular as a beverage. And, by the 1930s and 40s, Phillip island’s chicory kilns were pumping out around three-quarters of the national crop.
By the mid-1960s however, Phillip Island’s chicory industry, increasingly uneconomic, had ceased to be viable and production ground slowly to a halt.
These days, although still used in some herbal remedies (and, since Roman times, considered to offer a number of health benefits) the dessicated chicory root has all-but disappeared from supermarket shelves.
But you may be surprised to discover that the plant is still widely used in Mediterranean cuisine. An Italian salad is, in fact, barely complete without it.
The young fresh tops of the plant – you and I know it as radicchio or endive – adds the perfect crisp edge to a cool Italian salad. (Especially when combined with a brilliant ‘first run’ olive oil, balsamic vinegar and cracked pepper.)
At the Phillip Island Winery, we are planning to soon have a planting of chicory to add to the homegrown flavours of our platter menus.
(We will also be regularly posting images of the various chicory kilns of Phillip Island onto this website.)
Some other facts about chicory:
- Chicory was believed by the ancient Egyptians to purify the blood and liver.
- Romans also consumed it for its health-giving affects.
- Some modern herbal remedies include chicory for the treatment of gout, gallstones, dyspepsia and rheumatism.
- It is also considered to have sedative, diuretic and laxative effects.
- Chicory makes good silage and is highly regarded as a stock-feed, especially for prime lambs. The high mineral content of the plant and its rapid passage through the gut enables a higher feed intake and produces rapid liveweight gains. (We will be testing this out on a small flock of Suffolk sheep we will soon be bringing to the vineyard.)
- Chicory is fast growing and can be densely planted; up to 60 plants can be planted in each square metre.