The last day of March dawned clear and breezy, and the grass all around was spotted yellow. The day was perfect for picking dandelions.
Ever since I was twelve years old, when I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, I’d thought about making the mysterious brew. Dandelions barely smell, to my nose, and what aroma they have seems more grassy than floral. The flower petals fortunately lack the bitterness of the rest of the plant, but they also lack much flavor at all. Yet apparently dandelion wine was once quite popular, at least among British and North American writers on country life in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Dandelion wine—“the words were summer on the tongue,” Bradbury says. But what does the stuff taste like? One writer says sherry; another says the wine resembles whiskey, especially if you include the green parts of the flower and age the wine well. A North Dakota everything-but-grape winery says its dandelion wine is like “a cross between a light chardonnay and corn on the cob.” I could order the wine from North Dakota, but I wouldn’t know how it was made. I needed to make my own from a traditional recipe to know how dandelion wine ought to taste.
Often I’d been inspired to make dandelion wine too late in the year, when the yellow flowers spotting the grass weren’t dandelions at all but their less edible look-alikes, cat’s ear and sow thistle. One year my husband and I started picking those flowers and stopped only when our small daughter pointed out the leaves. Dandelion leaves really do look like dents de lion, or as least as you might imagine lion’s teeth to look, if lions had green teeth. And the leaves aren’t the least bit prickly or furry; they’re smooth and thin, and they look good to eat–as they are, if you like very bitter greens. In late March, though, I didn’t need to check the foliage; all the yellow flowers in the orchard and vegetable garden were dandelions.
I harvested the flowers as instructed by several old books: With one hand, snap off a head. With the other hand, pinch off the bracts along with any remains of the stem, which will be oozing bitter white sap, and as much of the base of the flower and the green calyx as come away easily. Drop the rest into a bucket. With the biggest flowers, I was sometimes able to pull away all the petals in one pinch and leave the rest of the flower behind.
Before I could pick the flower, though, I’d often have to pick off a bug. A spotted cucumber beetle, looking like a slightly elongated lady bug spotted black on yellow or yellow-green instead of red, rested on every third to fourth dandelion. Gluttons for bitterness, the beetles were enjoying dandelions as a starter course while waiting to feast on my cucumbers, melons, squash, and beans come summer. I pinched each beetle that didn’t get away—fortunately, they’re slow in cool weather–and wiped my fingers on the damp grass to avoid adding bitter beetle juice to my brew.
Despite the extra time devoted to pest control, in an hour and a half I’d harvested a gallon of dandelion blossoms. In the kitchen, I boiled a gallon of water in a stockpot and stirred in the flowers. Then I left the pot sitting on the kitchen counter for three days, and stirred the mixture once a day. It smelled mildly musty.
At this point old recipes vary somewhat. Since dandelion flowers aren’t sweet, the most important ingredient to add is sugar. Recipes often call for honey, Demerara sugar, malt sugar, raisins, or some combination of these. Reluctant to risk wasting expensive bought sugar or my home-produced honey or raisins, I added three pounds of ordinary white sugar. “To improve the flavor” (admits Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs), you next add citrus, usually ginger, and often another spice or two. I was wary of overpowering whatever flavor the dandelions might prove to possess, so I used the thinly peeled rind and the juice of just one orange and one lemon, plus an ounce of grated fresh ginger.
I stirred the mixture together, brought it to a boil, and let it boil gently for 20 minutes. Then I let it cool to lukewarm and poured it into a scalded food-grade plastic bucket. The old books say to set a piece of rye bread on top and spread yeast of an unspecified sort on top. Instead I stirred half an envelope of wine yeast into a quarter-cup of warm water and stirred the mixture into the bucket. I set a lid loosely on top and put the bucket in a warm closet.
Yesterday my husband sniffed the wine and assured me that fermentation was under way, so today I strained the bubbling liquid through a coarsely woven nylon jelly bag, poured the wine into a gallon glass jug, and plugged the jug with a waterlock. Squeezing the bag turned the liquid yellow, though the color may settle out along with the fine solids. I had about a pint left over after I filled the jug, so I put it into the fridge for later, but first I had a little taste. The new wine isn’t bitter or medicinal at all, but pleasantly sweet, citrusy, and a little gingery.
When the wine in the jug has finished fermenting, I’ll bottle it. After that, Euell Gibbons tells me in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I mustn’t touch it until Christmas. Then I’ll tell you what I think of dandelion wine. Will it uphold the dandelion’s reputation as a diuretic, as revealed by its modern French name, pissenlit (“piss in the bed”)? Will it fortify my blood, as dandelions are also supposed to do? Maybe one taste will make me exclaim, like the boy in Bradbury’s book, “I’m a fire-eater! Whoosh!”
I’ll let you know what happens.