When Was Chicory First Used in Coffee?
No one is sure exactly when people began mixing chicory with coffee, but according to Antony Wild (author of ‘Coffee: A Dark History’), the use of chicory became popular in France during Napoleon’s ‘Continental Blockade’ of 1808, which resulted in a major coffee shortage. Chicory is native to France, where it has long been loved for culinary reasons so it’s only natural that’s where the story began. During the blockade, the French mixed chicory with limited supplies of coffee to make their coffee stretch — and even used it in place of coffee altogether. While chicory doesn’t have any caffeine, it does share a similar flavor to coffee, which makes it a decent substitute in times of need.
When the blockade lifted and economic prosperity returned to France, the use of chicory in coffee subsided. But it did not disappear. Actually, the practice made its way over to the French colonies, like Louisiana. In 1860 alone, France exported 16 million pounds of chicory, and as a result, it’s now grown in other parts of the world, namely North America and Australia. But it wasn’t until the Civil War when Union naval blockades cut off the port of New Orleans, one of the largest coffee imports at the time, that coffee chicory became a big thing stateside.
Staying true to their roots, New Orleans locals turned to chicory to make their limited coffee supply stretch. The practice stuck, even when coffee became readily available again, because according to locals it’s all about tradition. The world famous Cafe Du Monde still makes its cafe au lait with chicory, and it’s especially good with a side of hot beignets.
Root chicory (Cichorium intybus var. sativum) has been cultivated in Europe as a coffee substitute. The roots are baked, roasted, ground, and used as an additive, especially in the Mediterranean region (where the plant is native). As a coffee additive, it is also mixed in Indian filter coffee, and in parts of Southeast Asia, South Africa, and southern United States, particularly in New Orleans. It has been more widely used during economic crises such as the Great Depression in the 1930s and during World War II in Continental Europe. Chicory, with sugar beet and rye, was used as an ingredient of the East German Mischkaffee (mixed coffee), introduced during the “East German coffee crisis” of 1976-79.
Some beer brewers use roasted chicory to add flavor to stouts (commonly expected to have a coffee-like flavor). Others have added it to strong blond Belgian-style ales, to augment the hops, making a witlofbier, from the Dutch name for the plant.
Around 1970, it was found that the root contains up to 20% inulin, a polysaccharide similar to starch. Inulin is mainly found in the plant family Asteraceae as a storage carbohydrate (for example Jerusalem artichoke, dahlia, yacon, etc.). It is used as a sweetener in the food industry with a sweetening power 1⁄10 that of sucrose and is sometimes added to yogurts as a prebiotic. Inulin is also gaining popularity as a source of soluble dietary fiber and functional food.
Chicory root extract is a dietary supplement or food additive produced by mixing dried, ground chicory root with water, and removing the insoluble fraction by filtration and centrifugation. Other methods may be used to remove pigments and sugars. It is used as a source of soluble fiber. Fresh chicory root typically contains, by dry weight, 68% inulin, 14% sucrose, 5% cellulose, 6% protein, 4% ash, and 3% other compounds. Dried chicory root extract contains, by weight, about 98% inulin and 2% other compounds. Fresh chicory root may contain between 13 and 23% inulin, by total weight.
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 groundnuts.
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.