If you feel a little heathen drinking caffeinated beverages, or in the mood to mimic a 1980s New Orleans percolated café experience, then roasted chicory root is calling. Roasted chicory root is very close in flavour to Western society’s favourite hot beverage, coffee. Some would argue more so than any attempted substitute. Before Gloria Jeans and Starbucks, this herb played not only an integral role in what we now know as coffee, but also medical history as well. From ancient Egyptians to European royalty, chicory was used to treat a variety of ailments before it was adapted into the culinary item we know today.
The French inadvertently introduced the popularity of chicory as a cheaper partner to coffee around the 1800’s. When coffee cargo was embargoed in New Orleans in the late 1800’s they also turned to chicory. Their desperate search for an alternative also included beets, acorns and burnt sugar but chicory remained steadfast. Coffee/chicory blends are still served all over New Orleans, café au lait style (hot milk) with a beignet or café brûlot, often touted creole coffee (hot milk or cream and molasses). As so often happens in the timeline that is existence, what was once a prized commodity can become a common table item (read salt, pepper). Likewise, what was once a penny-saving exercise is now an item in demand (read, in this case, chicory root).
Chicory Through the Ages
Chicory is most famous for being a coffee substitute, but there is far more to this plant than just the rich, dark flavour of its roasted root. Chicory has been used for thousands of years both as a food and as a medicinal plant. Traced back to ancient Egyptians, who believed it promoted the health of the liver and gall bladder. It’s thought that Ancient Greeks used chicory as a way to cure headaches. The powder was often mixed with rose oil and vinegar and ingested by the ailing patient.
From Egypt and Greece, cultivation of the plant spread further north into Europe. The use of chicory plants to treat medical issues was so prevalent that it survived through the Dark Ages, throughout which much of medical literature and practices from the ancient Greeks and Romans were lost.
If you want to try harvesting, roasting, and grinding chicory root, harvest it in autumn and use the younger tender roots as they are less bitter. The shoots can be harvested for eating after about two months. Creating your own chicory powder is relatively straightforward. Roast the washed roots in the oven at the lowest setting for approximately 8 hours until completely dry and then grind.
Try substituting roast chicory root powder anywhere where coffee would be used. Hello chicory granita. A granita is typically iced espresso, sugar and a liqueur such as Tia Maria or Frangelico. Just substitute chicory in place of the coffee for the espresso.
Chicory syrup can be created by boiling the root with vanilla and sugar. This can be used in aperitifs or affogatos. We also recommend trying all the accompaniments that marry well with coffee such as cinnamon, nutmeg or vanilla. To make the syrup dissolve sugar in boiling water, take off the heat and dissolve in the chicory root powder, let cool and bottle. Use 1 part water to 1.5 parts sugar, to 2.5 parts chicory root.
When it comes to chicory, our ancestors were clearly onto something. Modern science has proven that chicory does indeed have manifold health benefits. First is its high concentration of inulin, the fibre of choice that gets added to energy bars, cereals and other ‘high fibre’ wonder foods that grace our shelves. For those who can’t bring themselves to buy fruit.
While medical researchers are still catching on to the benefits of chicory root, various cultures have used chicory for many ailments. In their publication Chichorium intybus: Traditional Uses, Phytochemistry, Pharmacology, and Toxicology, Street, Sidana and Prinsloo note how different cultures have applied chicory back through the ages. Different parts of the plant can be utilized, in most cases through the form of a decoction. A decoction is typically an aqueous extraction of the plant parts through boiling. In Iran the whole plant is utilized to treat various ailments including digestive and liver disorders, and fevers. The Turks use the roots (decoction), leaves (ointment) and aerials (tea) for kidney stones, wound healing, hemorrhoids and urinary disorders. In India they use the seeds for liver disorders, the whole plant for diabetes and the root for liver ailments, gout and rheumatism.
For the Thinking Organ
Tidbit: Chicory essence is a Bach Flower Remedy. Reputed to be useful in treating dislike of oneself, bossy mood, fear of loneliness, argumentativeness, fussiness, mental congestion, fear of losing friends, fretfulness, greed and a list of others. More information is available in a publication by the Edward Bach Healing Center titled ‘The Bach Flower Remedies’.
As with the use of all herbs, do your research. Ensure your herb of choice won’t clash with any current ailments or medications and consult a medical specialist if unsure. Pregnant and nursing women should avoid chicory.
Glycerites can be used medicinally and topically. They are made by steeping plant matter in glycerine. Glycerine does not favour extraction of resins and oils. It extracts tannins and some alkaloids. In comparison water and alcohol extract a larger degree of tannins and alcohol extracts oils and waxes. When incorporated into skin care products glycerites are less drying on the skin than alcohol based tinctures. Glycerine extracts have a much longer shelf life than aqueous extracts. Although glycerine acts as an emollient and is soothing and healing to the skin it should not be used neat on the skin as it can cause irritation. Dilute into a medium, such as an aqueous-based cream or water before use.
If you plan on taking your glycerite orally make sure you source food grade vegetable glycerine.
The below is taken from The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook written by James Green (Crossing Press).
MAKING GLYCERITES USING FRESH PLANT MATERIAL
The McQuade-Izard Folk Method
- Fill your maceration container to medium density with the fresh plant material
- Take out and weigh the plant material.
- Transfer the fresh herb to a blender.
- Add sufficient glycerin to cover the herb and blend (make sure you use food grade glycerine).
- Pour contents back into the maceration container ensuring there is enough glycerin to cover the plant material.
- Agitate twice daily for 14 days.
- Strain, press (squeezing the liquid from the solid material)* and store in dark glass bottles. You can use muslin cloth or a potato masher works wonders as well.
Shelf life will be between 1-3 years depending on the water content of the plant material. Store your glycerite in an airtight container away from light and heat.
We’ve made a chicory leaf based extract here but we recommend also trying a glycerite using the root.