It Ain’t All in the Beans

   Written by on July 28, 2016 at 1:58 pm

logo - walk in gardenYou know it’s hot when I’m not looking forward to my first cup of caffeine, er, coffee in the morning.  I’ve thought about getting up and trying to get my day started without it, but that idea was dismissed pretty quickly. Crank up the AC and brew that pot of cowboy java, yessiree.

Times are gonna have to get really tight for me to cross Maxwell House off my grocery list.  I might not be very adventurous in my brand choice, but I say, why mess with a good thing?  Hope the coffee bean crop never gets wiped out again, or too expensive for good ol’ Juan to deliver. That has happened many times during coffee-drinking history, and so people often turned to roasted chicory as a substitute.  Folks also used to make what they called coffee from roasted acorns, yams, and a variety of local grains, but chicory was the best substitute.

You’re familiar with chicory whether you know it or not:  it’s that pretty blue flower growing in the gravel on the sides of the road everywhere.  And so, I thought why not cultivate it and grow it as a cash crop?  Called our extension agent to get the answer.  He’s so polite.  At eight o’clock in the morning, this crazy woman is calling with some stupid question, the answer to which is going to solve all the farmers’ problems. Taking a deep breath, and another swallow of his coffee , he said simply, “I don’t know.”  Wasn’t going to let him get off that easy, so I suggested that perhaps cultivation, harvesting, and processing equipment would be so different and expensive that growers weren’t interested. “I don’t know,” he said, holding back a chuckle. Or maybe, except for the ‘way southern states there isn’t much market for chicory.  “I don’t know.  Maybe.” Gave up.

The root of the chicory plant is long and thick, like the taproot of the dandelion. When dried, roasted, and ground it makes an excellent substitute for coffee. The biggest problem, as I see it, is that chicory has no caffeine; on the other hand, it produces more roasted flavor than coffee does. Many coffee producers offer blends with up to 30% chicory, which cuts down on the zoom in your cup. Too bad. But, it’s more soluble in water than coffee, which means you use a lot less of it when brewing.

Opinions come and go about coffee, but chicory offers health benefits that you never find in coffee. It is reported to help cleanse the blood and improve the health of your liver. The young leaves can be used in salads, and the root can also be boiled and eaten like a vegetable; it’s related to endive and radicchio. It’s even grown for cattle food in Europe.

Chicory was and still is synonymous with New Orleans coffee. The specific taste of famous New Orleans brands is due to the blend of dark roasted coffee and chicory.  It’s even being cultivated on a large scale in Michigan. So why not Southside Virginia?  Goodness knows, VDOT spends enough time cutting down a huge crop of it every summer.  If you check on the other properties of chicory, you’ll find that it has uses in many areas, including medicinal, homeopathic, veterinary, cosmetic, gardening, besides lots of other culinary applications.  And get this:  the seeds have been used in love potions. See?  The root is actually processed much like peanuts.  So what’s the problem?

True confession time.  I do a certain amount of research for this column; find what I need and read no further.  So, I will tell you that I have not sampled a coffee brand that contains chicory.  I’m not a coffee snob by any means, just haven’t.  I splurge occasionally and buy Kona, and I can recommend that.  It’s all a matter of taste, that and the subliminal but important effects from a morning cuppa Joe.  In order to be ready for the massive crop devastation and astronomical prices that will happen when the growers decide things are going along too smoothly, I guess I’ll buy some chicory-laden coffee and see what it’s like.

Like a true coffee lover, I drink the stuff all day.  During the chicory experiment, we’ll see if that wonderful aroma is the same.  We’ll see if the ol’ taste buds start quivering, and the saliva starts flowing.  If not, wake me up for supper.

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