Monday, March 26, 2012

Dandelion Marmalade, Fizz and Wine

Haven't we been so spoilt with the glorious weather this week? Ambling through meadows in pursuit of dandelions with the sun on my back and birdsong in my ears has been an absolute joy. No other flower, except perhaps for coltsfoot, resembles a child's crayoned sun in quite the same way as the dandelion. Its spiky rays of bright yellow have been mirroring the one shining down on them from the big blue sky this week. A happy, happy sight. They look more like mini suns to me than the lion's teeth that they were named after in Old French, dent de lion, maybe it's a lion's mane thing, or the pointed leaves...anyway, given the sun's presence this week, dandelions were undeniably the perfect flowers to gather.

I'm writing this not long after loading my bucket with flower heads and preparing my various concoctions. Watching my fingers hit the keyboard anybody would be forgiven for thinking I've got a 40-a-day Gauloise habit, they look a distinctly nicotine stained shade of yellow. Hmm. At least they're not as black as they were when I initially returned from the dandelion field.

I know what to blame at least. Have you ever noticed the milky sap that oozes from the cut or broken stem of a dandelion? This is the cleverest of defence systems employed to protect the damaged plant from fungal and bacterial infections. Whatever it does to protect the plant, it leaves its mark on a forager's fingers too and anything that touches them thereafter sticks to them including pollen - nicotine fingers! I read in Miles Irving's The Forager Handbook that this sap is a white latex and has been harvested commercially for the production of rubber - explains a lot!

I suppose dandelions really don't need much in the way of an introduction, yellow spiked flowers on long hollow stems emerging from a basal rosette of jagged leaves. If you have a close look at the leaves you'll notice grooves, the purpose of which are to channel rainwater directly to the root as the basal rosette prevents rainwater soaking through the ground and reaching the root that way. When you take the time to get up close and personal with dandelions you'll notice that they don't all look the same. There are so many different micro species all looking similar that it's easy to get confused. If I see a field with lots of yellow suns that look like dandelions, regardless of species, I know them to be edible and I harvest away. After visiting only a few flowers, it doesn't take long to realise that the forager isn't the only thing attracted to the dandelion. This early in the year, when the newly emerged bees and butterflies need an energy hit, I always ensure that I don't denude an area and that I leave a dandelion feast for them too, it seems only fair. As more plants offer themselves during the coming weeks, I'm less fussy about this.

The bees want the pollen and nectar, but what could I want them for? They were a plant avoided by my father and his boyhood friends because they reputedly made you "wet the bed," although that wasn't quite the phrase he or they used! There is a basis in fact here as dandelions do indeed flush the kidneys and act as a mild diuretic and laxative. Not sure about making you lose control in the middle of the night but anyway. The young leaves make a good  if bitter addition to salad or can be wilted as a side dish. The roots can be boiled, stir fried or made into coffee but I'm not interested too much in these uses, I'm interested in the flowers. The petals for adding to omelettes, salads etc. the flower heads for lightly coating in batter and deep frying. Wine and fizz are my choices for this year, and for the first time I've made Jon Wright's Dandelion Apple Marmalade.

Dandelion Fizz 
(by Pamela Michael "Edible Wild Plants and Herbs")

1 litre dandelion flowers picked in the sun when fully open
2 and a half litres of water
1kg of sugar
2 lemons

  1. Trim the stalks from the flower heads but leave the green sepals on.
  2. Put into a container and pour over the boiling water.
  3. Cover and leave to stand for 12 hours or overnight.
  4. Strain through a double thickness of muslin into a saucepan. Add the sugar, lemon juice and rind (pith removed)
  5. Heat gently and stir until the sugar has dissolved.
  6. Strain into jugs and when cool pour into sterilised screw top bottles.
  7. Store in a cool dark place for 3 - 4 weeks before drinking this mildly alcoholic beverage.

Dandelion Wine
 (by Pamela Michael "Edible Wild Plants and Herbs")

3 litres of dandelion flowers
5 litres of water
250g (1 1/2 cups) chopped raisins
2 oranges
1 lemon
1 1/2 kg (6 cups) sugar
2 tbsps cold tea or 1 tsp wine tannin
  1. Start the yeast by putting it into a sterilised screw top bottle with approx 400ml of luke warm water that has 2 tbspns of caster sugar and juice of half a lemon dissolved within it.
  2. Remove the stalks from the dandelion flowers but keep the green sepals on.
  3. Place the prepared flowers and 2 1/2 litres of boiling water into a bucket or bowl, cover with a clean cloth and leave for 2 days, stirring once each day.
  4. On the third day empty the contents into a large saucepan, add the pith (no rind) of the oranges and lemon, add the sugar and bring to the boil stirring until the sugar dissolves.
  5. Boil gently for 30 minutes.
  6. Put the raisins and strained orange and lemon juice into a plastic bucket and pour on the boiling contents of the saucepan.
  7. Add the remaining 2 1/2 litres of cold water, cover the bucket and leave to cool.
  8. At about 20 degrees C stir in the tea or tannin and activated yeast, cover and leave in a warm place for 3 days.
  9. Strain the liquid into a Demijohn fitted with a bung and airlock and rack into a second Demijohn once fermentation has ceased.
  10. Leave in a cool place for a few months to clear before bottling.
There are a good number of excellent websites and books available that give more detailed descriptions about the winemaking process. It's not at all difficult but if you haven't made wine before, it might be worth spending a little time having a quick look at them.

Dandelion Marmalade
(by John Wright "River Cottage Handbook No. 7 - Hedgerow")

1 litre apple juice (not from concentrate)
80g (approx 180 flowers) of dandelion petals (green sepals and stalk removed)
100ml fresh lemon juice (approx 2-3 lemons)
750g jam sugar

  1. Put a plate into the freezer to test for setting later.
  2. Pour the apple juice into a saucepan and stir in 60g (approx 130 flowers) of the petals.
  3. Bring to simmering point, remove from the heat, cover and leave overnight.
  4. Strain the juice into a separate pan and add the lemon juice and slowly heat to boiling point.
  5. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved before adding the remaining 20g (approx 50 flowers)
  6. Increase the heat and boil for 6-7 minutes until the setting point has been reached. (Remove the pan from the heat and test for setting by placing a small spoonful of marmalade onto the frozen plate, if after a minute the marmalade wrinkes when you push it gently with your finger, it is ready.)
  7. Remove scum with a slotted spoon before ladelling into warm, sterilised jars. Cover and seal.
  8. Once cool enough to handle, give the jar a sharp shake to distribute the petals through the marmalade.