Illustrations by Ariel Roman
Chicory is a plant that is native to western Asia, North Africa, and Europe. A small, slightly woody herb-like plant with leaves like dandelions with little blue flowers that only stay on for a day. The Egyptians cultivated it, the poet Horace ate it, and at least one poetically inclined German has termed it “Blauwarte”, or the “blue watch-keeper by-the-sea”. But the destiny of this little herb - the cousin of raddichio and endive - was not to be the peaceful one imagined by the giver of that name.
It comes to us from France, or more accurately, from far-from-home French soldiers. Camped endless days in Napoleonic campaigns, this basic plant was easier to forage or cultivate as a pot-herb than coffee. So rather than do without, these men would drink a brew made from the root of the chicory plant roasted on mornings before trampling half of the world. When they returned, they brought with them this practice, and the plant’s rich flavor was merged with real coffee to create a signature French preparation style. When they came to the Americas, it came too.
Once here, the use of roasted chicory root to flavor coffee was lolling around on the margins, and would not be called on again en masse until more blood occasioned a shortage. America went to war with itself. The port of New Orleans was sewn tightly into blockade. The coffee did not flow in, and people once again turned to the little blue flower.
Thankfully, wars end. What has stayed since is the chicory in coffee in the port city of New Orleans. There it is served au lait, preferably enjoyed under sky and in heat that is coarsely humid. There are other ways but this is the best one. And below I will detail one more.
Why everything about this mode of preparation is wrong, and why it doesn’t matter.
Adding this strange bitter and spicy herb to your coffee is not quite going to highlight its subtler characteristics. The notes of tamarind and stewed pear that you’re probably seeking are not going to feature here. This drink is a drink of excess in the face of famine. The location of the aesthetic moment is cultural-historical, and the connection is very real. This is coffee drinking that is born from very hard times, very near the giving and receiving end of death, but arced by reflection (and access to good milk and sugar), into a rare and beautiful experience all its own. Yes, I said milk and sugar. I know I don’t usually say that.
If you’d like to try making this at home, one version of the recipe to serve iced is included. Please use coarse roasted chicory (be patient, you will find it), and I recommend avoiding darker roasts to offset the chicory’s flavor potency. It is also essential to adulterate with the sugar and the milk. In this extremely rare case, they are not optional. The recipe is not mine. It’s from Blue Bottle (bluebottlecoffee.net). They serve an excellent iced cup in this style in both Brooklyn and San Francisco.
If you find an outstanding place for this in New Orleans, please write. The cups I’ve had there have certainly had their charms, but were not fresh.
You will need:
1lb of coarse-ground coffee
1.5 ounces of roasted and chopped chicory (I stress that this is coarse)
A big stock pot with a lid (If you can make a stock in it, it is big enough)
A fine meshed metal sieve
A large mason jar (1.5 quart) with a lid
Water that tastes delicious when drunk on its own (Not that we are not all delicious when drunk on our own)
3 ounces simple syrup (I would err on the sweet side for the syrup)
Add the coffee, the chicory and 2-and-a-half quarts of water to the stock pot at room temperature. Stir with a wooden spoon. Cover. Report back in 8 hours. (Blue bottle says 8 - 12, but at a slim 8 hours and some minutes, my test runs were maybe even a hair over-steeped). Strain the mixture with the strainer into the mason jar. Add the simple syrup now if you’re going to drink this in 2 or so days. If not, it will keep longer if you add it to the cups themselves. In a glass, pour over ice; one part sweetened coffee concentrate to one part milk. (Do not add the milk to the mason jar ever.) Drink or Serve.
by Jimmy Jams