Human beings have been gathering their food for nearly two million years. Up until around ten thousand years ago, foraging was very likely people’s only means of survival. It’s hard to imagine no quick run to the corner market to pick up a little flour, but a Homo erectus who wanted to eat bread had to wait until summer, go find the grain, harvest it with a handmade scythe, pound it, and bake it into an unleavened loaf.
I am very glad for my corner market. But those millions of years my ancestors spent gathering food from the wild are not lost on me. I love to forage and find ways to utilize the plants that nature tends to, incorporating them into delicious and healthful food and drink. They’re free! They’re organic (hopefully)! What could be better?
One plant that has always intrigued me is the chicory. It has a beautiful cornflower blue blossom that lights up the roadsides all through summer and fall. Its leggy, haphazard growing pattern is straggly, in an endearing sort of way. But this wild herb is more than just a pretty flower; with strong medicinal qualities, it has been used as a digestive aid for thousands of years and is believed to lower blood sugar and to cleanse the liver. Some studies have even shown chicory to be effective at eliminating intestinal parasites.
Another wonderful quality of this roadside herb is that the roasted root of the chicory makes a delicious coffee-like (but caffeine free) drink. The late summer, early fall is a great time to go out and to harvest this root, because the flowering push is finished and the plant’s energy has returned underground, to prepare for winter. It’s not difficult to find this plant and, since there are no poisonous look-a-likes, it’s a perfect herb to use in some foraging experimentation.With a short jaunt up the road I found this chicory plant.
Using a trowel, I dug down into the ground as close as possible to the taproot. When I felt like I couldn’t get down any further, I tugged on the root to release it. Chicory root is pretty soft and it will break easily if you don’t dig it out first. Sometimes using a fork helps to loosen the soil around the root.
Once I got the root all dug out I was ready to head home with my treasure.
Even Dingo knows that chicory is good to eat!
I cut off the roots and cleaned them well.
Next, I chopped the roots, roasted them at 350 degrees for about an hour (until they were toasty brown), and put them through the coffee grinder for a couple minutes.
After this step I simply boiled some water, put a teaspoon of chicory grounds in my tea infuser, and let it sit for about ten minutes.
Voila! A delicious and healthy cup of coffee-like, self foraged, Homo erectus approved beverage!
Hope this gives you some foraging ideas for your next hiking trip–enjoy!
Photo: Susana Romatz