Chicory: in Baltimore, a weed; in New Orleans, a hip coffee substitute
The Baltimore Urban Forager pulls up the roots of these purple aster-like flowers — blooming now — and roasts them.
Above: Chicory “coffee”
“The succory, or chiccory, is a hardy perennial not uncommon in calcareous wastes and by roadsides.” Loudon, Encyclopedia Garden, 1859.
What was true in 1850s England is as true today in Baltimore: The delicate blue-lavender flower of common chicory (Cichorium intybus) is now a roadside weed, found in vacant lots, yards and roadsides throughout the city.
Native to Europe it has clearly naturalized here. Although the aster-like flowers are distinctive (they open and close at the same time daily), it’s the long taproot that is treasured. Slowly roasted and ground into a fine powder it has been a coffee substitute since the Middle Ages where it originated in the Mediterranean region.
It has been used during coffee crises and times of austerity to extend supplies. But don’t be fooled. It may be flavorful, soluble, and stretch coffee supplies, but it won’t give you that extra kick. No caffeine buzz. Enjoyed as a beverage in its own right, especially in France, here you’ll find it still consumed in what’s known as New Orleans coffee. There it is a matter of preference and usually served as café au lait. Consider it the great New Orleans French quarter okeydoke.
My parents had a can of Café du Monde, a coffee-chicory blend, in the cupboard for years as a souvenir from a family trip to New Orleans. The chicory cuts the bitterness of strong coffee and adds a chocolate flavor. As a child, I preferred it to coffee perhaps for these same reasons.
Although chicory is related to the radicchio, various types of endive (Cichorium endivia), and escarole, the greens of Baltimore’s chicory weed are barely palatable. They are used as animal fodder in Europe, but I threw them out. If you prefer not to waste anything, however, try blanching the leaves to take out their bitterness.
In Baltimore, I did not need to travel far to find chicory. A good crop was in bloom on a section of my block that had not yet been mowed. I harvested one large multi-rooted specimen and several smaller ones. Since the tap root is long and deep, I needed a spade to dig them out. I replaced the earth and grass to cover my tracks. Otherwise it would have looked like a groundhog had plowed through. Not good for neighborly relations.
I scrubbed the roots clean, put them on a baking sheet, and roasted them at 350. They came out slightly burnt. I suggest slowly roasting them at 200-250. The smell from roasting was so strong that it reached the sidewalk outside, much to my partner’s dismay. The last step is to grind them into a powder. Our coffee grinder worked fine as did an ordinary coffee filter. Although the powder was undeniably charred, the brew came out a remarkably amber-colored. I must admit that chicory foraging is a great deal of work for very little return but then, that is part of the fun, or rather chicanery, of it all!
Thanks are due to Bradford Angier’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants (1974, pp. 56–7) for this year’s chicory foraging adventure. The chicory illustration struck some bells in my subconscious memory of Baltimore’s current roadside attractions (or rather distractions). His description of its edibility gave good advice as well on processing the leaves and roasting the roots. This and several other books by Angier from the 70s have been republished in the past decade, including Feasting Free on Wild Edibles, Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants, and How to Stay Alive in the Woods.
The new haute cuisine fad for foraged foods, foraging blogs, and urban foraging movement across the country, has deep roots in American independent survivalist culture.
No chicory trickery there.