After I’d used up all the chicons Rich Collins had sent me, I couldn’t bring myself to throw their half-pound roots in the compost. The chicory cultivars preferred for blanching today are distinct from those preferred for coffee, but all of these varieties are one and the same species; unlike most wild chicory, they all have thick, fleshy roots. So I had to try grinding and roasting my gift roots for chicory coffee.
Coffee blended with chicory became popular in Europe when the naval wars following the French Revolution drove up the price of pure bean brew. The taste—or, perhaps more accurately, tolerance—for coffee-chicory blends spread from France to the Creoles of New Orleans. New Orleans groceries have sold both coffee blended with chicory and ground chicory root on its own for as long as anyone remembers. But many natives say that chicory is tolerable at no more than 20 percent in a blend, and then only when the coffee is drunk with milk.
Chicory added to coffee was among the common adulterants that led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. I wanted to try chicory not as as adulterant but all on its own.
As I scrubbed my chicory roots, the rootlets came away along with some gritty dirt. I tasted a bit of raw root; it was awfully bitter but at the same time weirdly sweet. Chicory’s sweetness comes from inulin, a soluble fiber that feeds “good” bacteria in the gut and is used medicinally to help with constipation and calcium absorption. (Warning: Inulin can cause flatulence.)
In ten minutes’ time, I sliced the six roots and ground them to bits in a small food processor. Then I spread the bits on large pans and put the pans in a convection oven set at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Within half an hour, the bits were browning. I turned the pans and began turning the chicory bits with a dough scraper every five to ten minutes.
After a little more than an hour and a half of cooking, the chicory was well and evenly browned. As it cooled in the pans, it smelled like caramel. I put a tablespoon of the chicory bits into a drip coffee maker and stored the rest in a jar. From three pounds of roots, I had three cups of roasted chicory bits.
Brewed with about six ounces of water, the chicory infusion came out just a little lighter than typical American coffee; a darker roast, of course, would have made a darker brew. The drink tasted sweet, but also very bitter, with none of coffee’s aroma. Cream would have improved the brew. Roasted barley might have improved it even more. But after a few sips my husband and I simply abandoned the cup. The stuff was just too bitter.
The next day I tried again, using a tablespoon of chicory bits not in the coffee maker but in a wire basket meant for infusing tea. After two minutes of steeping with water just off the boil, the brew was a dark as most coffee and, again, very bitter. I let the chicory steep for another minute, though, and now the brew was sweeter. I had extracted more inulin, and its sweetness helped to balance the bitterness. I was able to drink half the cup. I guessed that brewed chicory might most resemble coffee to people who routinely take their coffee with sugar.
The bitterness of chicory comes from other components, called sesquiterpene lactones (lactucin, lactupicrin, and 8-deoxylactucin). These substances, like inulin, are extracted by steeping chicory root in water. Although lactucin and its sister chemicals have been little studied, various scientists have found that they discourage insects from feeding on chicory, fight malarial infection, and, in mice, relieve pain and act as a sedative.
The last of these properties—the sedative one—might be a key to chicory’s long history as a coffee additive. Not only does roasted chicory root match or exceed coffee in bitterness and balance that bitterness with natural sweetness, but chicory provides a downer drug to counteract the stimulant caffeine.
For several hours after drinking my half cup of chicory brew, I felt sleepy, sluggish, and stupid. The jar of roasted chicory root sits on my pantry shelf waiting for someone else to try it. Me, I’m sticking with unadulterated coffee.