Like many people I love my morning cup of joe – it fires me up, ready to tackle whatever the day might bring. But come afternoon, it’s time to switch to something altogether gentler, and caffeine-free. Teas are fab, but they don’t offer that same comforting, hug-in-the-mouth depth that a good coffee does. And decaf coffees – pah!
But there is a surprising alternative: two different roots that, when ground down, both bear an uncanny resemblance to coffee. And the best bit is, you can grow them yourself! Homegrown coffee...who would’ve thought it?!
Chicory root is the same plant (Cichorium intybus) that is often grown for its leaves or forced chicons. It’s related to dandelion, which (spoiler alert!) is our second root crop. Both plants produce a lovely deep taproot, and it’s this we’ll be making our coffee from.
Chicory grows wild in many regions, and is easily identified during the growing season by its pretty blue flowers and in winter by the remains of the old flower stalks. You’ll sometimes find it growing at a field scale because it’s a superbly resilient, drought-resistant plant, which makes it a great low-fuss option for feeding livestock.
The roots go down quite deep, so to dig them up without snapping them, you’ll need to first work your fork all the way around the plant to loosen the soil before carefully easing the root up. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t dig up plants from the wild, and you’ll need ask permission before digging plants up on someone else’s land.
Better still, grow them yourself - and I’ll be explaining how to do that later on.
Preparing and Roasting Chicory
Wash the worst of the mud off the roots and give them a good swish-swash in a bucket of water. Scrub them clean with a brush and some fresh water, then rinse. I find it easier to brush off the dirt if the stems and leaves are still intact to grab hold of, but once everything’s clean you can cut the top growth off to leave just the clean roots.
There are two ways to dry the roots. The first option is to cut them up into thin slices, spread them out onto a mesh screen and pop them into a dehydrator set to high for about 12 hours, until they’re shrivelled. If you don’t have a dehydrator, no problem – just pop them into an oven set to a low heat, about 200ºF (90ºC) for an hour or two. If you’re using an oven, shake or stir the pieces of root every 15 minutes or so to make sure they dry evenly.
Pop the dried root pieces into the oven, this time set to 350ºF (175ºC). This is where the real magic happens. As the roots roast to a golden to brown hue they’ll waft out the most delicious smell and take on deep flavours. Roast them for 20 to 45 minutes. The exact time will depend on the size of the pieces of root. Check on them from time to time, especially when you can start to smell them. Give them a bit of a shake for an even roast. Once they’re part golden, part browned, they’re good to come out.
Once your roasted roots have cooled, pop them into a grinder and whizz them up until they resemble coffee grounds. This ground chicory root can be used in a cafetiere, filtered – however you prefer your coffee.
Keep reading to find out the results of my taste test...
Dandelion needs little introduction. For many gardeners it’s one of our most prevalent ‘weeds’ – and I say ‘weeds’ in quote marks because this is one of the most wonderful wildflowers out there. They’re really the gardener’s friend, not foe! Bees love the sunny blooms, and every bit of the plant, from the root to the flowers and the leaves, is edible.
Victorian aristocrats loved this humble lawn weed so much they would grow it separately as a prized salad crop. And did you know that the word ‘dandelion’ comes from the French dents de lion, or ‘lion’s teeth’, which refers to the serrated edges of its leaves?
Dandelions are dug up in the same as chicory, though you could use a specific dandelion weeding tool to hoik the root up intact without tearing up chunks of lawn. The roots are then washed, dried, and chopped up into small pieces. Dehydrate them then roast at 350ºF (170-180ºC) for 20 to 45 minutes. As you roast them you’ll notice an incredible, sweet smell coming off them – it smells almost like chocolate brownies, really rather irresistible!
Grind the chopped up, dried and roasted roots, then store them in a labelled, airtight container. Dandelion coffee grounds need to be boiled with water before straining it. I added one heaped teaspoon of grounds to one mug of water for my taste test.
How to Grow Chicory
Chicory is very easy to start from seed. It’s best sown in spring, though last year I sowed the seeds in autumn and successfully overwintered the seedlings before planting them in spring.
Sow direct into rows about a foot (30cm) apart then thin the seedlings to around 8in (20cm) apart. You can also sow seeds thinly into pots of multi-purpose potting mix then covering them with a touch more potting mix. Water well and grow on before transplanting sturdy seedlings into their own plugs or pots. They can be planted as soon as ground space becomes available.
Grow your chicory somewhere that gets at least six hours of direct sunshine a day, and preferably in loose, well-drained soil, which will make digging up the roots a lot easier. Lift the roots up from autumn onwards.
I’m not going to explain how to grow dandelion because – well, it’s not exactly tricky to cultivate and you probably have neighbours who will be only too happy to part with theirs!
Chicory vs Dandelion Root Taste Test
Now the bit I’ve been looking forward to: tasting them side by side. I prepped my chicory coffee using my coffee maker. You can add sugar or milk at this stage – I left it as it was for the sake of the taste test, so we’ll get a fairer comparison.
Starting with chicory, it’s got a kind of rich, deep woody smell to it, not dissimilar to coffee – and it looks exactly like normal coffee too. I tasted a slight bitterness in the back of the throat – perfectly passable for good coffee!
The dandelion root coffee has a slightly sweet, caramel smell. It’s a little bit lighter-tasting than the chicory coffee, with a chocolatey, nutty flavour. I don’t think it needs any sugar as it’s got a natural sweetness. I was really impressed with it!
Both chicory and dandelion root make very solid coffee substitutes. I’m going to be growing and drinking a lot more of this stuff!