Monday, 28 September 2015

Dandelions, traditional food from Italy and childhood memories

The dandelion

It was after I gave up the fight to eradicate the dandelion from our garden that I remembered we were once served them in a salad in Greece.

Like all casual gardeners the presence of this weed is a badge that I don’t care about the garden and a constant reminder that I should be out there pulling them up.

But they are a source of food and en mass I reckon they do look pretty neat.

Now the best time to harvest the leaves is in early spring when apparently they are “tender and delicious and can be served in salads and sandwiches.”

Fields of them
All of which was a revelation to me, but on reflection I can’t think why that should be.

There are many perfectly edible plants that grow wild.

Tina’s mum can often be found collecting these greens and bringing them home to serve up in a meal.

And when the children were younger Rosa would take them into the woods to collect chestnuts which she would either roast or boil.

In my case all I have left from my own childhood foraging is a memory of eating blackberries when out walking the lanes with my grandfather, although I do also cherish a few late September afternoon collecting from fruit from the side of a canal and making a pie with them.

My old friends John and Margaret would make regular journeys onto the meadows collecting Elderberry flowers to make into home wine.

Hedgerow Harvest, July 1946
I suppose it is a habit that we have lost preferring to buy them rather than collect them.

And I guess is also connected with the distance many of us are from our rural past.  Once it would have been commonplace to pick what could be found in the hedgerows.

But even sixty years ago it was for many a peculiarity so much so that in July 1946 the Ministry of Food issued advice of gathering food from the countryside.

These were still years of food rationing after the war and the Government offered a free advice service on how to plan prepare and cook meals.

Hedgerow Harvest declared that “there is a wealth of wild foods in our hedgerows and fields for those who are within reach of the countryside” and provided recipes for Elderberry pudding, Blackberry or Elderberry Roly Poly, Blackberry or Elderberry Kissell and Blackberry or Elderberry Tart, along with suggestions for how to make pickles and chutneys, fruit bottling without sugar, how to preserve tomatoes and jam making."

All of which takes brings me back to Rosa.  She was born in Naples in 1940 and her early years were set against wartime shortages and a style of cooking which made do of what there was and the skill of making a little go along way.

Rosa's meal for dinner
So there are no little bags of salad in her fridge nor pre packed slices of meat with a long sell by date.  Her food is fresh and what is left over goes into another meal that evening or the following day.

And yes she will still collect the green leaves on her regular walks out of Varese and her children still have fond memories of days out with a basket looking for interesting things to eat.

Now I am fully aware that at this point there should appear a Government Health Warning about being very careful about what you collect.

This I fully endorse given my own total ignorance about what to eat from the hedgerows.

Which I suppose is a sad comment on just how much has been lost.

And equally on that simple fact that despite all I have said those dandelions in the front garden make me feel a little uneasy and I rather think will have to go.

Which has also to be an admission that I have never tried eating dandelion leaves.

Pictures; from the Food Free Advice Service of the Ministry of Food in the collection of Vince Piggott, dandelions near you and waiting for Rosa from the collection of Andrew Simpson

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