Chicory in Cheese Sauce

One of the most enjoyable vegetables currently in season this winter is witloof chicory, that sentinel-shaped bud of greeny-white leaves which, like celery, is grown underground to keep it white and compact.

Like Chinese leaves, witloof, or Belgian chicory, is both bitter and juicy. It is essential in winter salads, with a choice of apples or oranges plus walnuts. Use a walnut oil and sherry vinegar as the basis for a dressing.

Better still, chicory is delicious sweated in butter until it is soft, then wrapped in a slice of good farmhouse ham spread on one side with Dijon mustard. Put the whole in an ovenproof dish and cover with a tangy cheese sauce (I like mature Cheddar added to bechamel and spiked with a small spoonful of mustard, a slosh of Tabasco and a sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg.) On top of the sauce sprinkle plenty more grated Cheddar and brown under the grill, if you have one. As I have an Aga, I just put the whole dish in the top oven.

It is a meal in itself, but a single chicon (as a set of leaves is called) with ham and cheese makes a perfect first course for lunch or dinner.