John Wright transforms the notorious weed into coffee, wine, brandy and sugar syrup

As I have belaboured much in these articles, people often take exception to foraging on spurious conservation grounds. Yes, someone could help themselves to a lion’s mane fungus or eat toasted orchid bulbs, but easily half of the wild food that is collected in any quantity is a weed.

The dandelion, a notorious weed unearthed from lawns by the billion every year and destined for the compost heap, is well worth your consideration. Having so affirmed that it is an acceptable target for the conscientious forager, I will shortly explain what might be done with it. But, first, I must mention the interesting fact that the dandelion is not one, but legion.

Botanists, when talking about them at cocktail parties, may speak of dandelions, or Taraxacum officinale or, after a few drinks, Taraxacum agg. The ‘agg’ here means aggregate, a reference to the several hundred microspecies of dandelion, all  of which have their own name. Most of these microspecies are genetic clones, apomictic species in the trade.

The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale var genuinum, is one of several hundred varieties of the much-maligned garden plant

The standard work on British these plants is Dandelions of Great Britain and Ireland by Dudman and Richards. It describes more than 100 of the British microspecies in minute and painful detail, providing silhouettes, all of which look identical to those uninitiated in the bright yellow world of taraxacology.

Essentially, although the dandelions in your garden are an undoubted nuisance, uprooting them could conceivably destroy the last bastion of a rare microspecies.

 

Bitter taste

There are three components collected from dandelions: their leaves, their flowers and their roots. The leaves are a challenge to the palate as they are so very bitter. One or two in a salad may be acceptable, but not an entire plate of them, as was once served at a wild-food dinner I was hosting. The chef had read that they were edible and sent his kitchen porter out to collect a sackful. Nobody ate more than one.

There is, however, a solution. If you upturn a black builder’s bucket over a dense patch of dandelions and hold it in place with a brick, any new growth will be blanched and etiolated. Thus modified, they will be more succulent and less bitter. You may find you need to remove woodlice, during periodic examinations of the bucket.

The lovely petals of dandelions should be collected on a bright April morning. The week or so either side of 23 April is traditional. By mid-May, it is unlikely that you will find a single flower. Picking in the morning is essential as they famously shut up shop in the afternoon. Deal with your collection the moment you arrive home, snipping off the petals (florets, really) with scissors.

Dandelion wine is the flagship and almost singular use for the petals — and worth the effort if you make a good job of it. Dandelion wine is one of the more acceptable country wines and not the abomination of desolation associated with most. Anyway, it is traditional.

The petals can also be made into a syrup by mixing them with white sugar. Leave the mix for two days, then stir in half a litre of boiling water for every kilogram of sugar used. You may need to keep it warm on the stove to dissolve all of the sugar, before sieving it. The flavour is of barley sugar, with a hint of bitter. I suggest pouring it on pancakes.

Dandelion brandy is simply a sweet alcoholic infusion that is just about acceptable straight or with soda. Without the sugar, it will make a gentle bitters for cocktails.

Dandelion florets are chopped off and used to make one of the more drinkable country wines

 

Smell the coffee

Finally, the roots. Technically, they are edible when boiled. They are bitter and very chewy, but worthwhile in extremis as they contain starch. More sensible, is to make them into coffee.

Dandelion coffee is a concoction at which the cynic — your correspondent included — will likely sneer. However, many years ago, I made it myself and was impressed that it did, indeed, taste like coffee. Not quite a Hawaii Kona or Jamaican Blue Mountain, but good enough for a latte.

Dandelion coffee comes with a long tradition, with advertorials appearing as early as 1800 recommending ‘Hooper’s Taraxacum’, supported with promises that it would cure or alleviate any number of diseases.

Dandelion roots can be roasted and ground to make an acceptable substitute for coffee

I was very pleased to see one by Lea & Perrins, Chemists of Worcester, in a copy of John Bull of 1848. It offered dandelion coffee for sale as a “diet drink in bilious and nervous affections, dyspepsia, pulmonary consumptions, in liver and other visceral complaints”. It may have been in liquid form, the same as Camp coffee, and in two varieties — straight and a mixture of real coffee and essence of dandelion coffee. It appears that it was not a big seller and it no longer produces it, but I believe the company has done very well with another of its potions.

So it is time to review the lawn and the borders before, armed with a narrow hand-weeder and the increasingly obligatory kneeler, you advance into battle. Dig deep and almost vertically around any offending dandelion and do your very best to remove the entire root. Collect them in a separate bucket. Trim away everything but the more substantial roots and brush off the mud.

Back in the kitchen, scrub them clean, then slice the fatter roots lengthways. Drain, then arrange on a windowsill, in a low oven or in a dedicated drier. Once completely dry, the  roots can be stored in a sealed jar.

The roots should be roasted at 200°C for 25 minutes. Do keep an eye on proceedings — you are expecting smoke, but not flames (as once happened to me). Cool the slightly charred roots and grind them, then use the powder in your favourite bit of coffee-making kit.

One great advantage of dandelion coffee is that it contains no caffeine, enabling you to fall asleep quickly. Unfortunately, of all its medicinal presumptions, the plant’s diuretic powers are the most evident. You may be slumbering peacefully within minutes, but you will be up again three hours later.