Friday, May 22, 2015

Dent-de-lion- The Dandelion

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerso

Whether you are referring to the dandelion as blowball, lion's tooth, cankerwort, fairy clock, wild endive or pissabed, you are referring to a plant that has long been known for its culinary and medicinal properties. One of the earliest known greens, and a common and misaligned flower, dandelion's make very good eating and were not unknown in period. 

The official name is Taraxacum officinale, which is a derivative of the Arabic tarakhshaquin, "wild chicory" or "bitter herb", and also refers to "wild endive".  In Latin, the plant was referred to as Dens Leonis, the Greeks referred to it as Leotodum.  The Welsh refer to it as Dant y Llew as early as the 13th century. The French, the dent-de-lion, and the English gave it the name we are now familiar with--the dandelion. 

European dandelions were imported to North America by our ancestors because it was a familiar 'potherb'. It is thought that dandelions may have arrived as early as the arrival of the pilgrims on the Mayflower. It is believed that the seeds were deliberately scattered in order to establish a wild population and to provide food for honeybees which were also introduced from Europe (Ombrello)

What is a potherb? A potherb is defined as any leafy herb or plant that was grown for culinary usage and prepared by cooking in a pot.  In fact, there are records of dandelion seeds being for sale in seed catalogs as early as 1874 (Rubel, 2015).

Dandelion greens are bitter, and the first mention of dandelions are for their medicinal usage rather than culinary.  They are a good source of vitamins A, B complex and C and are rich in minerals such as zinc, potassium and iron.  Using the roots of the plant roasted as a tea does have a diuretic effect.  The first written records of dandelion can be found in 7th century Chinese records.  In the 10th century the Arabs wrote about it.  In 1485, the first referance in Europe can be found.
Medieval people ate a wider range of greens then we eat today.  Many of the greens that were consumed are considered weeds today.  The fresh leaves of the dandelion were served in salads or cooked as greens in period.  The flowers may have been used as a coloring agent, as they do produce a yellow coloring and could have been used in place of saffron. I have not been able to determine if that is so. It is a guess on my part. 

James Beard has this to say of the much aligned dandelion:  "A sea of golden dandelions thrusting up thorough the grass is a pretty sight--and inspires thoughts of gastronomic possibilities as well. Though familiar to us all, dandelions are not, as far as I know, native to this country. There is a legend that the first plants were brought here by a woman who greatly enjoyed the provocative, distinct taste of fresh dandelion greens in a spring salad. Being hardy little plants, dandelions then spread all over the country. True or not, the idea of transplanting a European weed for gastronomic delight is a romantic one. There was a time, both in England and here (especially through the Pennsylvania Dutch country), that dandelions were gathered and flowers picked off the stems to be made into dandelion wine. This was recognized as tonic by many people who eschewed alcohol, but would have a little nip of dandelion or parsnip wine for their health. It was worth nipping, though not a wine of such character or distinction that one would want it constantly. However, during Prohibition and during times when women thought it was not the thing to drink wine in public, a sip of dandelion wine was considered good and comforting....I have a book by Macmillan deLoup, published in New York in 1899, which lists three different recipes for dandelion salads, along with this remark: 'These are not yet popular in the United States, but the peculiar bitterness is relished by some people and is said to be most healthful.' Dandelion greens have long been popular in France and Italy, and remain so. There are even a couple of cultivated varieties that are not members of the species that pops up unannounced in one's garden. They are used in spring salads with a dressing of olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, with salad herbs or mustard added. I love the slight bitterness and refreshing quality--it goes so well with a grilled chop or a steak. Years ago, when I was flirting with the idea of a career as an opera singer, I studied with a brilliant Italian coach in London. He also was a great connoisseur of food and a very respectable cook. He would gather dandelion greens, or find them in the markets, and concoct a most delectable mixture for Sunday lunch. This would be the first course, followed perhaps by some cheese and very good bread, or maybe chops or a chicken (Beard, 1981)."

If you are looking for a free, period green to use in a salad, or in a dish of wortys, some may need look no further than the backyard.  Please be sure if you are picking dandelion greens, that the area you are picking from has not been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides.  I have known dandelion’s to stay green and growing in even the mildest of winters.  A good dish for the SCA to try them would be “Buttered Wortes, found in Harliean MS 279, published approximately 1430.

 Buttered Wortes”. ^ Take al maner of good herbes that thou may gete, and do bi ham as is forsaid ; putte hem on \q fire with faire water ; put ]7ere-to clarefied buttur a grete quantite. Whan thei ben boyled ynogh, salt hem ; late none otemele come ther<;-in. Dise brede small in disshes, and powr<? on \q wortes, and serue hem forth (Austin).

 Buttered Herbs. Take all manner of good herbs that thou may get, and do by them as is aforesaid; put them on the fire with fair water; put thereto clarified butter a great quantity.  When they are boiled enough, salt them: let no oatmeal come therein.  Dice bread small in dishes and pour on the herbs, and serve them forth.

 Buttered Herbs – Makes about 4 Cups  serves 6-8 (this is probably more than enough for two tables of 8 at any feast- it is a vegetable. Use your best judgment)

 8 cups assorted greens (kale, spinach, cabbage, beet greens, arugula, lambs quarters, chard, dandelion, etc.)Several sprigs of fresh herbs such as thyme, marjoram, parsley, mint etc.
2 Tbsp. clarified butter
1 tsp.  salt
2 1” thick slices of bread cubed

 Bring the water to a boil in a pot. Rinse all greens and herbs well and place them in the boiling water for 5-1o minutes. Remove from heat. Take the greens and herbs out of the pot with a slotted spoon.  Allow them to cool on a cutting board.  When cool, press them with a paper towel or absorbent cloth to remove the excess water. 
Chop them into small pieces and place them in a clean pot. Add butter and salt.  Mix well. Cook the mixture over medium heat until hot.  Do not boil. Either pour the hot herb mixture over bread cubes in a serving dish, or top the herbs with the bread.  Serve hot.

Works Cited

Austin, T. (n.d.). Two fifteenth-century cookery-books. Harleian ms. 279 (ab. 1430), & Harl. ms. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole ms. 1429, Laud ms. 553, & Douce ms. 55. Retrieved May 22, 2015, from Archive.Org:
Beard, J. (1981). Beard on Food: Dandelions Left Home ot Make Good. Los Angeles Times, K38.
Ombrello, T. D. (n.d.). Dandelion. Retrieved May 19, 2015, from Plant of the Week - Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department:
Rubel, W. (2015, April 23). The History of the Garden Dandelion . Retrieved May 19, 2015, from The Magic of Fire, Traditional Foodwas with William Rubel: