Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a hardy perennial that was brought to North America from Europe in the 1700s, and is now well-established across the continent. Though chicory has a variety of uses, it's best known for its association with coffee.
At many points through history, coffee has become unavailable or too costly. During these times, people have often turned to roasted chicory as a substitute. Folks also used to make coffee from roasted acorns, yams and a variety of local grains. Anything was better than going without!
The root of the chicory plant is long and thick, like the tap-root of the dandelion. When dried, roasted and ground, it makes an excellent substitute for coffee. There is no caffeine in chicory, and it produces a more 'roasted' flavour than coffee does. Many coffee producers offer blends with up to 30% chicory, which cuts down on the caffeine content of your cup.
Another perk about chicory is that it's more soluable in water than coffee, which means you use a lot less of it when brewing. Very economical for someone on a tight budget.
Chicory also offers extra health benefits that you wouldn't normally get from your cup of coffee. It is reported to help cleanse the blood and improve the health of your liver.
The young leaves can be used in salads, and the root can also be boiled and eaten like a vegetable (it's related to endive and radicchio). It's also grown for cattle food in Europe. The flowers are blue-purple, and will open and close at precisely the same time every day.
(A Popular Southern Coffee Style)
Chicory is an herb which contains no calories nor caffeine. It is a common plant throughout Europe, Asia, and America, and is often seen growing in the wild as well as being cultivated. In its wild form, it is a perennial, but cultivated, it is an annual. Although we recognize this plant with its lacy blue flowers growing alongside our highways and in empty fields, it is actually the root which we eventually identify with. Looking much like a turnip, the root is cut into slices, kiln dried, then roasted and ground in a similar manner to coffee. Although it has the appearance of coffee at this point, that is where the similarities stop! Chicory has bittersweet overtones and is definitely an acquired taste.
The primary use of Chicory has been as an inexpensive substitute for coffee, or as an extender in commercial grade coffee to keep down the cost of blends. Before the turn of the century, it was common practice not only to substitute Chicory for coffee, but chick peas, barley, oats and even ground acorns as well. In 1907, the Food and Drug Act became effective, requiring labels to state when a filler was employed, and the practice of undisclosed substitution began to decline.
Although the truth in labeling has been in effect for many years now, many parts of our country actually prefer the taste of coffee when blended with Chicory. One need only cross over the "Mason-Dixon" line to see what this means. There is a little known story that during the Civil War, the North had cut the South off from its supply of coffee from Europe. In its resourcefulness, the South simply harvested the wild Chicory and used it as coffee substitute until the war was over. The taste became so ingrained however, that even today the South's coffee of preference usually contains some Chicory.