Here it is spring, the snow is fast melting and the first buds are on the trees. It is time to prepare for an explosion of plants poking out everywhere. Spring is a joyous moment for urban foraging. We at SPURSE would like to offer you a recipe from the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook for one of our favorite moments in spring: when the Dandelions first emerge: the making of Dandelion Wine. This wine is really a dry champagne -- floral, crisp, bubbly and refreshing. Well worth the effort!
This excerpt is from the third chapter when we start to really wrestle with the concept of "commonness." So you can skip down to the recipe if you wish or enjoy a longer meander into being "common." Enjoy either way, and please send us a note on how your wine turns out!
"...The common weeds beckoned us as we looked for the answers. Curly Dock and Burdock, Plantain, Pokeweed and Pigweed called to us from cracks, street margins, untended planters and abandoned lots. Most of all we found our most common weed, that fast-spreading rhizome with an intense yellow blossom that gardeners are forever digging up, the glorious Dandelion. It is a definition par excellence of common, it is everything that is not exclusive or unique, it is common in all of the vulgar senses of the word. Vulgar, we must remember, once meant common ordinary people—to be vulgar was to be of the common folk. Dandelion is of this same vulgate—the world of common folk practices and ecosystems. It has a long shared history with human communities. We find it in old medicinal textbooks and other ancient manuscripts. Dioscorides, the widely travelled Greek physician serving in the Roman army as a surgeon under Nero, writes in De Materia Medica (On Medicinal Materials) of it as a tonic, a diuretic, a salad, a wine, and a root vegetable. It has been central to our joys, battles and everyday life for thousands of years. It travelled with European farmers to North America as part of the ancient Indo-European peasant pharmacopeia. Its commonness extends beyond the human—bees swarming to their blossoms, fungi joining to their roots, insects sleeping in their nightly closing blossoms. In the commonness of the dandelion we cross over into other worlds and entangle with desires older and more diverse than our own.
They are everywhere, and are everywhere seemingly unstoppable. Sadly, it seems, that we now take offense to their very will to live. It is their will to spread, to be ubiquitous and common—that we hold against them. As a pure green field of grass has come to define domestic refinement, the Dandelion has found itself on the wrong side of a class war—the symbol of the long and powerful peasant-plant entanglement. Remembering how delighted we were as children to play with the beautiful Dandelion blossoms I am still shocked that many gardeners see no beauty in this plant. How is it that the beauty of a Dandelion blossom is any less beautiful than a Black-Eyed Susan, or an Ox-Eyed Daisy? How is it that we do not see this beauty as we busily weed them away? How many of us remember the childhood joy of falling into a deep blanket of yellow at the height of spring? How many of us remember lying there, looking up at the slow moving summer sky and listening to the buzzing of the bees? We had the capacity to embrace vulgar dreams then. Dandelion greens have long been a favorite common green in salads and soup pots. That it is rare to meet a dandelion in the grocery store today is part of a long historical shift from valuing and depending on what was common to valuing what is exclusive, distinct and unique. Ironically, when we do find dandelions in our local Whole Foods they are all dolled up, being forced to pass as an exotic, foreign, and distinguished green.
The most common weeds that are under-foot on our city streets—the Curly Dock, Dandelion, Plantain, Pigweed, and Pokeweed—were the plants that once kept all of us alive and healthy (they still do in many other parts of the world). This motley band of plants has travelled with us across continents, cultures, and differing ways of living. For millennia Plantain has travelled with us from Eurasia, Pigweed from South America, and Knotweed traveled the world before coming to the Americas from Japan. This list of entangled migrations could go on—growing to an enormous length and stretch from these New York streets to all corners of the globe, and back into our earliest pre-human foraging practices.
As we forage and pick plants we carry on a complex entangled process of negotiating across species into mutually beneficial entanglements that began long before we became human. Picking and ingesting specific plants begins to transform our bodies, from the composition of our stomach bacteria to the neurology of our brains. In this picking plants change; we are being induced to favor some over others. The plants turn around and use us as their extended distribution systems: we’re carefully carry their seeds in our digestive system to be pooped out further afield, or as sly interlopers hitchhiking on the bottoms of our shoes. We are our entanglements, and foraging—in the broadest sense of the word—is our primary means of entangling. In all of this we are co-shaping our shared extended and entangled eating-place.
Our sidewalk weed world is the outcome of tens of thousands of years of a complex dance of co-shaping our common environments. Pigweed (Amaranth), that ancient Aztec grain which has the unique modern property of resisting Roundup, is a wonderful example of having slowly travelled with—and shaped—cultures from Africa to Peru to the high Arctic. The most common plants—what we now call the weeds or worse “invasive species”, are the ones that have longest and most deeply shaped us. These weeds—-are just as much “us” as are our gut flora and fauna. In our shared persistent desire to stay alive, they remain with us—still common to our streets, back alleys, and overgrown lots. It is we who have left these plant entanglements behind, choosing to cultivate in their place plants of an ever more exclusive and unique pedigrees. Our industrial farming choices have shoehorned plants into fast growing, low nutrient, sterile, and patentable creatures. This is a very recent move to leave behind the common weeds that for so long entangled in complex mutually supporting ecosystems. Our contemporary reality, where we understand plants as brittle products that are no longer allowed to negotiate the common ways and back lanes of everyday life, is the outcome of the last two hundred years. We should think of this period as one in which we have physically removed parts of our extended beings.
Our sidewalks reveal to us how much has been forgotten and cast aside. Each plant working its way up out of a crack is one that was once inseparable from our daily lives. If it’s spring where you read this, stop a moment and join your historical shared common world blooming all around you again:
In restaurant kitchens one of the classical test given to young would-be-chefs is to cook an omelet or scramble an egg perfectly. We would love to shift this test to: ferment something.
Perhaps the only goal of a cookbook is to make us rethink the status of all the things we eat. Fermentation can teach us much in this respect. This will make entirely different kinds of cooks to those who prove themselves with eggs and pans. To ferment well is to embrace that we are not at the center of cooking or eating. To ferment is to embrace that every time things will be unique. The practice of fermenting is to hear infinite other creatures speak, to listen and to respond with grace. All fruits spontaneously ferment and all creatures (from butterflies to apes) take a shared delight in this transformation. Pretty much all living things enjoy a good alcohol-fueled buzz. Yeast cultures and culture being common to species long before we modern humans came along. Indeed, there are a number of well-respected theories that argue that fermentation in general and alcohol in particular played an important role in our evolution to humanness.
The desire to reintroduce ourselves to the ecosystems on our city streets can begin with a simple recipe for entangling with weeds, seasons, fungi and complex cultural histories: which goes by the name Dandelion Wine. It is a light wine that takes advantage of the delicate aromas and flavors of Dandelions, honey and wild yeast. Before the industrial era and the industrialization of the world of wines (which ironically gave us “quality” wines—those that win awards and get the likes of Robert Parker and the New York Times excited) all fermentation was done utilizing wild yeasts that were already in cahoots with the fruit out in the fields (or the feet that crushed the grapes). Yeasts are a type of fungus that is common to the air all around us and to almost all sugary organisms (they particularly love our “interior ecosystems”—our houses, as you read these words you are inhaling and exhaling our microbial friends). Because of this it is not too hard to spontaneously ferment almost anything. (As you go through this cookbook you will see that most of our recipes involve fermentation in one form or another).
The problem with wild and spontaneous forms of fermentation is that they are just too inconsistent for our industrial world—a world that prefers its qualities to emerge from processes that guarantee the consistency of sameness as a repeatable model of perfection. Fermentation with wild yeasts means that each batch and each season will be its own event. Some batches will be like what you might expect and some: astonishing funky surprises. There is something wonderful about this inconsistency. I like to think of it this way: for each year left in our life we get one opportunity to entangle with these flowers. This wine will be the outcome of one such moment. When drinking this wine, you are meeting yeasts common only to a region and a patch of air, joining dandelions, sugars and thousands of years of pre-human cultural practices that have shepherded us once again into a shared delight. With this wine you will not be able to say that you have tasted “dandelion wine”—only that you have tasted this wine—this eating-place-and-time-with-dandelion-of-an-area-fermenting—a far more interesting and exciting statement.
Wild yeasts are also far more sensitive than commercial yeasts, and will not produce the high alcohol bombshells that are favored today. Higher alcohol and intense flavors go hand in glove. Alcohols made via spontaneous fermentation will not get you poached, and the taste will be more subtle, eccentric and nuanced. They are wines that will color your day without stopping it. Our last batch was effervescent and bubbly—full of light earthy greenness and a hint of floral blossoms. Slightly sweet with acidic crispness.
Here’s roughly how we have been making this sidewalk wine: In Spring start scoping out your neighborhood for Dandelions. Know your window of opportunity. The time to harvest the blossoms will be short—a couple of weeks at the most. You are going to need a good amount (about eight to ten cups per gallon of wine). It is important to get them from your immediate neighborhood—you don’t want to be dropping in on an area you have no connection to and running off with someone else’s supply. Speak to your neighbors, check in with them to see if they are using any, perhaps you can also learn a few good tricks or share some knowledge. When you find an area heavy with flowering Dandelions, don’t procrastinate; they will be drifting off as a cloud of floating seeds in no time. A sunny morning is best for picking. As the morning sun meets the fields the dandelions open. By afternoon the sun will begin to dry the flowers. (In general don’t pick right after it has rained, as the rain will have washed off some of the wild yeasts). Get down on your knees with the bugs, bees, and weeds. Pull the petals off the flower stem; try to keep as little of the green parts (but don’t get all fussy about this). Having less of the little green leaves surrounding the yellow blossom will help avoid the wine becoming too bitter (but some bitter is key). Remember with any patch you find, don’t take them all. Leave some for your fellow species and fellow human foragers. That said, if you are the only one in your area collecting these, then take more, and then share the wine at your next block party, dinner gathering, or picnic. Spread the word. Make the possibility of over -harvesting become a catalyst for you as a community to develop ways to collectively care for your local urban ecosystem. Collect 8 to 10 cups of Dandelions per gallon of water. You are going to need water that is free of chemicals (these will kill off your sensitive yeast companions). Rainwater is great if you have it (just leave a bucket out). Otherwise filter tap water, then boil it and finally let it sit overnight covered with a clean cloth—it’s just what we heard works. I’m sure there must be other better ways (just don’t go buying bottled water). This recipe starts with a gallon. Take out 8 cups of your now clean water and heat to a bit hotter than body temperature; add 2 1/2 cups of good local unpasteurized honey; stir to dissolve (add less if you do not want any sweetness, say 1 3/4th cups). Note: the honey you choose will significantly affect the flavor. Dandelions are mild, so choosing a mild honey the first time you do this gives you a way to sense the dandelioness of the wine. Pour the honey water slurry back into the bucket of water. Look over your flowers and remove any bugs, grass, stems, or leaves. Add the cleaned blossoms to the honey water; stir to submerge fully; cover the bucket with a cheesecloth (or what you have on hand—an old T-shirt will work), use a length of cord to tie, and set aside for a couple of days. Check to see that it is fermenting. You will know if this is happening by the fact that it is foamy or frothy on the top. If fermentation is not happening you will need to add yeast at this point (we offer a recipe on page 268 for the cultivation of wild yeasts). Let it go for another week. Remove the flowers. Strain into a sterilized container that has some form of airlock (such as a carboy—this is a large glass bottle with a small opening designed for brewing). Taste it at this point. You should be able to taste the delicate flavors emerging. It will be sweet, which is fine, as it will continue to ferment during the next stage of brewing. While a five-gallon carboy is ideal, a bucket jury-rigged to hold an airlock also works just fine. Put in a dark but warm place (if you do not a have a dark spot cover with something light-proof, as light will send things into a very very funky direction). Once it has fermented for about a month, taste and bottle. If it is still sweet it will continue to ferment in the bottles, which will give your wine a nice fizz. A warning: Carbonation (that nice fizz) is going to make a normal cork want to pop. Twist top bottles, beer style caps, or some other solution is best if this is the case. Now let sit until summer in a dark or covered warm spot (it could/should be longer). How long you let it sit is going to depend on your patience. We usually taste a bottle every few months until it seems just right, as we find this continuous testing a good way to follow what is happening in our bottled ecosystems. Remember time is one of your many collaborators. Don’t rush things. However you do it, you are going to have something very light and fantastically refreshing when served cold.
This recipe is ultra simple—you can use this basic method of making an ecosystem that will give rise to all sorts of great simple wines and champagnes (steeping a flavor + wild yeast + food (a sugar) + water). Elderberry is another fantastic, light, refreshing wine. Experiment as things come into blossom or fruit all spring and summer. Remember, before wine became synonymous with the grape, there were a thousand common wines being made from every conceivable weed.
A word of caution and delight to the dandelion wine novice: this wine might not turn out that well. We are drinking a common peasant wine—nothing fancy. It is, in the true sense of the word, a vulgar wine from a vulgar weed. But why complain about how it turns out? Enjoy whatever you get. If it does not taste quite right, leave it for a while or mix it. Resist the snobbery that will exclude us from such common worlds. Thoreau wrote in his journal, “That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” Sometimes I think he could have said it more accurately: “One is richest when one’s pleasures are the commonest.” So, if it turns out to be a truly god-awful batch (and we have some batches that do justice to this description), there are evermore dandelions and infinitely more wild yeasts: next year make another batch. Or: Alter your ideas of taste and take delight in how much of the common world is conspiring with you as you drink (not always easy!).
Please be in touch and if this inspires you please take a look at the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook.