What Is Chicory Root, and Should You Try Chicory Coffee?
You're craving coffee or a steaming cup of tea but you're beginning to worry about caffeine. These hot beverages, loaded with cultural symbolism, are hard to give up. Any habit is hard to kick, but the trick to successfully doing so is to replace it with a new one. That's where chicory comes in: Long used both as a natural additive to coffee and also a sought-after substitute for caffeine-rich, ritualized drinks, giving up your daily cup of joe could be easier once you become acquainted with this plant. The dainty azure petals of chicory flowers crowd late summer roadsides, meadows, and empty city lots alike. The blooms open wide in the morning, and fade by afternoon, like a botanical clock. The plants are so common that they are viewed as weeds and few people (aside from foragers) realize what they represent. The blue blooms are bright clues to a subterranean treasure: chicory root.
Common chicory is classified as Cichorium intybus, a perennial plant native to Eurasia and naturalized in the United States. There are several related varieties of chicory, and some are cultivated only for their crisply bitter salad leaves, like radicchio, endive, and puntarelle. Another species gives us escarole and frisée. Ground and roasted, the root of a chicory plant becomes a stand-in for coffee.
All About Chicory Root
The cultivated form of root chicory yields plump, straight taproots, like super-parsnips in appearance, and easier to harvest and process than those of its feral parent (think: substantial domesticated carrots versus their scrawny-rooted wild counterpart, Queen Anne's lace). Raw chicory root tastes bitter, but roasting transforms it. During the roasting process inulin (a prebiotic fiber) in the root is converted to oxymethylfurfurol, which has a coffee-like aroma (but not flavor). In terms of taste, chicory is unique: strong, toasty, and nutty, with suggestions of burned-sugar.
Chicory Root Has Been Around for Quite Some Time
Long valued as a herbal medicine (bitterness is often associated with cleansing properties in herbalism), people in Europe and Asia drank chicory before coffee was ever known and imported. In France, it achieved serious commercial crop status in the 19th century after Napoléon Bonaparte exhorted the French to consume local and home-grown chicory rather than colonial coffee (that made sense, given the fact that naval blockades hampered imports). By the second half of the 19th century chicory had to be imported by France (mainly from Belgium) because local production no longer met demand. And the demand was significant—in his book Coffee and Chicory: Their Culture, Chemical Composition, Preparation for Market and Consumption, 19th century author Peter Simmonds estimated that demand to be a whopping 16 million pounds around 1860.
In western Europe, post embargos, that demand was also fueled by the fact that chicory was very cheap and coffee was expensive. It was so cheap that unscrupulous merchants began using chicory as a sneak filler in coffee blends; chicory (as well as beet and barley) soon came to be viewed as an adulterant. Laws were passed in England prohibiting the sale of coffee mixed with other substances unless specifically labeled as such.
The Tie Between New Orleans and Chicory
Across the Atlantic, the American Civil War created a taste for chicory in the American South. New Orleanians have been loyal to chicory since their port was blockaded during the Civil War and their coffee habit thwarted. The Great Depression and two world wars propelled chicory into the 20th century, where it came to represent deprivation for many. Others developed a taste for it and the habit persisted. Café du Monde's iconic yellow cans of coffee and chicory ($7.44, amazon.com) have come to symbolize The Big Easy. A chicory-laced café au lait with beignets remains the idealized New Orleans breakfast.
Chicory Root's Place Today
In this age of wellness and health awareness, chicory has been reinvigorated and re-branded as a healthy lifestyle choice. Brands like Teeccino offer herbal mixtures where chicory is blended with flavors like fig and barley (ironically one of those banned fillers of two centuries ago) and being appreciated as a rewarding hot drink that offers comfort, minus a heart-pounding buzz.