Chicory (Cichorium intybus) has served humankind for millenia. The perennial herbacious plant has a striking appereance, with bright blue flowers that are closely attached to a less impressive stalk. The native Mediterranian plant was used by the Egyptians as an edible and medicinal herb and it is mentioned as such in Ancient Greek and Roman literature. Perphaps you haven’t had a chance to try out the pleasant bitterness of young chicory leaves, but you have quite likely eaten radicchio or Belgian endive. And, in fact, they are nearly the same thing! Chicory is the wild progenitor of radicchio and endive.
The wild plant has had a wide variety of medicinal uses, but its strong toxicity to internal parasites has been duly noted throughout the ages. Today, chicory is an important dietary supplement that keeps many farm animals healthy around the world.
In the Middle Ages, chicory was belived to have atropaic properties and was much esteemed for its ability to ward of evil spells or bad luck. Unusual precautions were taken when gathering chicory – rituals that for the modern reader verge on the bizarre. The plant’s ability to thrive along roadsides came to symbolize Christian perseverance and as such is featured in many medieval paintings. For more on art history and chicory, see this article from the Journal of Experimental Botany.
During Napoleonic times, chicory was used as a coffee substitute due to the British naval blockade and the resulting shortage of coffee beans. The dried chicory roots were roasted, then ground, and mixed with coffee. At the same time, the British blockade cut off the French supply of cane sugar, hence forcing the French to invent a process to extract sugar from beets on an industrial scale. In this sense we might describe the French as the founders of the local food movement – though it was hardly by choice!
Turning our focus back to more local histories, chicory also made an appearance during a more recent coffee crisis of the 1970s. Under East Germany’s socialist government, the coffee break during regular work hours was considered something of an institution. When in 1976 the price of coffee quadrupled almost overnight, the state was not able to meet the large demand for coffee. The solution was a new brand of coffee, the infamous “Kaffee-Mix“. Chicory and a blend of rye and sugar beets were mixed in with coffee. The mix was not as successful as expected and it led to widespead complaints, thus quickly politicizing the issue. Coffeewise, things returned to normal in 1979 when world prices for the commodity decreased.
The specimens of chicory that we identified can be found along the Mauerpark and along several parts of the Mauerweg, but is by no means isolated to this area. Chicory is widespead throughout Berlin.