Coffee & Chicory is the traditional favorite of many New Orleans natives. Coffee & Chicory blends are best enjoyed with a dose of warmed milk in the “au lait” style.
If you love coffee, chicory’s earthy, nutty flavor will be instantly familiar. Brew Nature’s Roast 100% Roasted Ground Chicory alone for a distinctive and satisfying treat, or add it to ground coffee to mellow out a coffee’s bitter notes. Contains no caffeine.
Coffee chicory is grown in many parts of the world, with the largest producers in France and South Africa, and now in the U.S. in the state of Nebraska. The root is grown and harvested much like sugar beets. The roots are pulled from the ground with specialized equipment, cut into small pieces, kiln dried, roasted, ground and packaged.
High concentrations of the carbohydrate inulin are caramelized during roasting and converted into d-fructose (fruit sugar). It also contains between 4 and 6 percent protein and a small quantity of fiber. The caramelized fruit-sugar gives chicory its distinctive dark brown color while increasing sweetness and reducing the bitterness that is characteristic of the raw root. Roasted chicory contains none of the volatile oils and aromatics that are contained in roasted coffee. It also contains no caffeine. It does however yield 45 to 65% of soluble extractive matter, while coffee yields only 20 to 25%. This difference explains why less coffee and chicory can be brewed while still resulting in a beverage that looks (and tastes) quite strong.
The roots of other subspecies of Chicorium Intybus are used for the production of the ‘forced’, grown in the dark, vegetable known as Belgian or French Endive also known as ‘chicon’ and Witloof chicory. The root is also used as a ‘feedstock’ for the manufacture of inulin, which is used as sweetening agent for low fat and reduced calorie foods. The leafy portion of the plant is often used as animal fodder in Europe, while in the U.S. it is generally considered a noxious weed. The blanched (to reduce bitterness) leaves can be used as a salad green.
The word ‘Chicory’ is probably derived from the Egyptian word ‘Ctchorium’, which in various forms has become the name of the plant in practically every European language. Originally used to describe the wild plant, its use over time was extended to the cultivated form as well. The use of the wild foliage as an animal feed probably coincided closely with its first use as human food, which undoubtedly predated recorded history.
Chicory was cultivated as early as 5000 years ago by Egyptians as a medicinal plant. Ancient Greeks and Romans used chicory as a vegetable and in salads. References exist in the writings of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny. Galenus gave it the name ‘Friend of the Liver’, because of its supposed stimulating effect on that organ. Cultivation as animal forage in northern Europe began in the early 17th century. The wild root may have been used for food, but it is likely that it was a last resort, since the wild root is woody and incredibly bitter. Cultivated roots, (when young and tender) on the other hand, are consumed to this day, particularly in Belgium.
Exactly when the root was first roasted to be used as a coffee substitute is unclear. There are references to the use of wild chicory root as a coffee additive in colonial America. It is known that its use in this form was widespread in France after Napoleon initiated the ‘Continental Blockade’ in 1808, which deprived the French of most of their coffee.
When the blockade was lifted the French continued to use chicory as an additive because they believed it was good for one’s health and improved the flavor of coffee. In the 19th century its use as a coffee additive and substitute became widespread in France and areas of French cultural influence like Louisiana. Chicory use grew with the advent of the Civil war. As trade disruptions and blockades disrupted deliveries of coffee, citizens and soldiers made do by roasting wild chicory root, as well as many other ingenuous substitutes like corn and ground nuts.
But this was a substitution of necessity, not choice, so when the war ended, chicory use decreased as prosperity improved and coffee became more readily available. Except in New Orleans and parts of Louisiana where its use was a matter of preference not necessity. Of course, chicory use, as an economical additive in coffee is widespread throughout the world. But, in New Orleans, this economic rationale ignores the influence of 19th century French culture on our cuisine, and does nothing to explain our continued preference for coffee & chicory, even when chicory becomes more expensive than many coffees.
New Orleanians hang onto their culinary traditions with a vengeance. We have consumed coffee and chicory for over two hundred years and will do so for another two hundred. While espresso, cappuccino and exotic coffees from around the world are available here as they are available everywhere, one can rest assured that a café au lait in New Orleans will be made with rich black coffee & chicory and boiled milk, just as it was two centuries ago.