We were driving in the early morning sunlight through southwest Louisiana, and I was fiddling with the radio dial.

"What's that music?" I asked my husband who was driving.

"Zydeco," he answered with a smile. I rolled the window down, after all it was an early spring morning and we were coming upon a town. I had seen the sign: New Iberia. We had plans to stop for breakfast, but I had yet to see a fast food joint or even a restaurant on this little road. But suddenly I smelled it before I saw it, a tiny shack just off the road surrounded by about a half dozen pickup trucks and maybe as many cars.

"Do I smell coffee?" I asked.

"Nope", he said with the widest grin. "You smell chicory!"Image

I had sneaked sips of homemade chicory as a child at the hands of some of my older relatives, and had developed quite a taste for it, but oh my goodness! I will never forget that first taste of honest to goodness New Iberia, Louisiana chicory coffee.

One thing led to another and I did some research recently on chicory, Cichorium intybus. I was thinking in terms of somehow connecting with someone who could perhaps lead me to a source of good chicory coffee that could regularly be sent to western Kentucky. I got so involved in reading about chicory, I still have not found a chicory source. This is what I learned:

The cultivated chicory plant has a history that goes all the way back to ancient Egypt. The Eber Papyrus, dating from 4000 BC is the oldest written document to refer to chicory. As a matter of fact, the name chicory could possibly come from the word Ctchorium, a word of Egyptian origin, which in various forms is the name of the plant in most European languages. The farmers of that era on both banks of the Nile cultivated chicory for its seeds, reputed to aid in digestion. They roasted the seeds on the flat surfaces of heated rocks.

Moving along to the Greeks who followed the Egyptians, Pedanios Dioscorides, a Greek doctor in the Roman army, was the first to mention chicory for its restorative powers. Often called Succory as well as chicory, it is related to the Endive, in that both are the only two species in the genus Cichorium. Succory was known to the Romans and eaten by them as a vegetable or in salads. This use was mentioned by Horace, Virgil and Pliny. It wasn't long before the plant and all that it provided would spread throughout the civilized world.

In the 1600's Medieval monks raised the plants, and then when coffee was introduced into Europe during the same period, the Dutch discovered that the addition of chicory to coffee made it superior tasting to coffee without an additive.

During the French Renaissance in the 16th century, the medicinal use of chicory roots, leaves, flowers and seeds became pretty well accepted. Then in the 18th century the first French factories copied the Dutch method of roasting chicory, and it became a commodity. As the French Revolution approached, chicory was as popular a beverage as coffee. Napoleon's political move to block English shipping in the earliest part of the 19th century caused chicory consumption to surpass coffee consumption.

Chicory is such a hardy perennial, it was easily brought to North America from Europe in the 1700's and is now well established across the continent. The root of the plant is long and thick, much 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 flavor than coffee does. Many coffee producers offer blends with up to 30% chicory, which cuts down on the caffeine in a cup of coffee, but lots of people, including me, enjoy a cup of "coffee" made entirely from ground, roasted chicory.

Another perk of chicory is that it is more soluble in water than coffee, and that means you use a lot less of it when brewing. I like to think that in itself is an economical favor. It also offers health benefits. There are many reasons why chicory is good for you. According to the editors of Prevention Health Books, chicory is excellent for lowering cholesterol. A new study reports that chicory reduces cholesterol levels and increases the ratio of HDL (the good stuff) to LDL (the bad stuff) in the blood of tested animals.{1}Image

It is said to lower blood sugar. Laboratory research by Leroux (Europe's largest chicory producer) has shown chicory root extracts to be anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and slightly sedative. It also slows and weakens the pulse and lowers blood sugar.{2} I suppose my biggest problem is that I load it with sugar and cream, but then I do the same with plain coffee.

A 1984 study demonstrated that daily intake by diabetics of a large amount of the fructo-oligosaccharides and insulin contained in chicory reduces the glucose rate in blood, decreases serum LDL cholesterol levels, and does not change the levels of triglycerides or HDL cholesterol. This lessens the disturbances in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism found in diabetes.{3}

Quite frankly, when I researched chicory, I found much more information than I bargained for. It packs quite a wallop for such an innocent looking plant that grows wild along some of our roadways. When I was young I found it wild in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. I developed a taste for chicory in my coffee, and still yearn for it when I can't find it on my grocery shelves. There is not a thing that is addictive about chicory except its flavor.

I have often wondered why chicory flavored coffee was more popular in the New Orleans area than in surrounding states. If we think in terms of the history of our country, we might be able to find the answer. Louisiana became a French crown colony in 1731. Trade at that time was primarily done by water. The French traders as well as the new colonists from France brought with them the dried roots of cultivated chicory. They might have been willing to give up their homeland, but they were not willing to give up their flavor preferences. When Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States, the population of Louisiana still remained primarily French. As a result, the preferred drink of that same population remained chicory.

In 1858, Jean-Baptiste Leroux bought a factory in Orchies, France. He stopped production on chocolate, tapioca and mustard and kept only one of the former products going, that product was chicory. French Market Coffee & Chicory, a large coffee packaging company located in New Orleans, has continued to import all of its chicory from Leroux since 1890. It is a partnership that continues to be ongoing.

The French population concentration in that part of our country seems to be the reason that chicory flavored coffee has been a favorite of the south in the past. However, with the influx of coffee shops, the inclination to visit the south, and our desire to seek new flavors, chicory coffee has become a popular drink throughout the United States.

If you have chicory growing near you, chances are it is wild chicory, because not much of it is cultivated here in the United States. Its cultivation is still primarily done in France. If you are a chicory lover, you might notice on some cans of coffee and chicory combinations that you purchase, there will be directions and recipes. Most often they will advise you to use only 1/2 to 1/3 as much of the mixture as you would with regular coffee when brewing. Some of my favorite combinations include making a very delightful Cafe au Lait, in which equal parts hot coffee and hot milk are mixed; in this instance it is better to use a strong brew of chicory flavored coffee because the hot milk will regulate the flavor considerably.

I also like to blend a bit of full flavored chicory coffee with vanilla ice cream, adding just a dash of chocolate syrup: ummm, decadent. I have a friend who uses a bit of chicory coffee in her chocolate cake. It creates a very rich chocolate taste. I have also heard that a strong blend of chicory coffee is great in sauces used as a marinade for steaks.

As good as it all sounds, I would simply be very happy if I could find chicory coffee on my grocer's shelf here in western Kentucky. I will be sure to let you know if I do.Image

{1} Journal of Nutrition, vol.128, pgs.1731-6, by Drs. Meehye Kim &Hyun Kyong Shin, Korea Food and Drug Administration and the Dept. of Food, Science and Nutrition, Hallym U., Chunchon, Korea

{2} http://frenchmarketcoffee.intelliporthosting.com/pg-5-14-french-market-university.aspx

{3} Efect of fructo oligosaccharides on bood glucose and serum lipids in diabetic subjects, Nutrition Research, 1984, vol.4, pp.961-66, by Yamashita Y, Kawai K, and Itakura M.

Other sources: http://www.frenchmarketcoffee.com/pg-5-16-recipes.aspx




Sunrise and coffee photos belong to the author. Other photos are from plant files, thanks to daryl, poppysue, and equilibrium for the use of their photos. And a special thanks to Ms. Ed and Melody for the thumbnail image.

Another article about chicory can be found here: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1247/