"It's easy to see how this relatively subtle, penny-pinching partnership has endured."
The term "chicory coffee" conjures romantic images of leisurely breakfasts in New Orleans, munching beignets and sipping from a steaming mug while the lazy strains of jazzy trumpets float through the air.
But what the heck is it, and is it actually good, or just a French Quarter daydream? Let's get down to the root of the root that makes this chicory coffee thing.
The stuff that winds up in those iconic Cafe Du Monde cans is ground coffee mixed with roasted and ground root chicory, the knobby core at the base of an endive plant. The latter has long been coupled with coffee in times of need—during wartime, for instance, when the real stuff is in short supply, as well as times when money is tight or coffee prices soar. "Helps make coffee go twice as far," one box of the stuff exclaims. Can it really?
In the interest of tasting pure chicory and not that certain famous canned N'awlins specialty, I procured some of the root from a local spice market for closer inspection. Roasted and ground chicory indeed looks almost identical to its caffeinated counterpart, and has a sweet tobacco-smoke aroma. Purveyors suggest anything from a two-to-one ratio of coffee to chicory to a half-and-half blend, which likely depends on your taste preferences or your purse strings (whichever inspired you to buy it in the first place).
I first tried the chicory brewed straight up, which has been a common use of it in times of beanless desperation. Steeped in a French press as though it were the genuine article, it has a strong, sweet-and-sour chestnuttiness to it, with a very slick and nectar-like body, and an incredibly long aftertaste. You'd no more mistake this for pure coffee than you would be fooled by seitan "chicken" fingers, but it's surprisingly better than some of the worst actual joe I've ever endured. A little milk transforms the flavor completely, into what tastes exactly like the crisp, blackened shell that forms on a fire-toasted marshmallow.
When mixed with fresh ground coffee, the chicory adds that same dried-fruit sweet-sourness to the cup up front, and lightens the body with a kind of oily film that clings to the teeth. While it's often advertised as having a "mellowing" effect on your morning brew, it actually imparts a bit of an acrid flavor of its own, reminiscent of the skin around a fresh-roasted nut. The finish, however, has a really lovely aromatic-wood quality to it, like warm cedar. Mixed with milk, the cup tastes much like hazelnut-flavored coffee smells, which is also actually—dare I say it—kind of nice in its own way.
Despite any misgivings a coffee lover might have about tampering with the real McCoy, it's easy to see how this relatively subtle, penny-pinching partnership has endured. But honestly it's even easier to imagine how much better it tastes after a night of touristy carousing on Bourbon Street, which, let's face it, is more or less where it should probably just stay.