FREE TO COLLECT Goosegrass, dandelion and nettle are all edible, though perhaps not to the taste of everyone.
Dandelion and goosegrass sandwich anyone?
Country Sights and Sounds
James sipped at his tea and grimaced. There might be too much milk or too little sugar, but I knew he was glad of it.
“At least it’s not made from dandelions,” I remarked. “You never know what you might get here.”
He sniffed. “Did you never make dandelion coffee? You have to dig up the roots, roast them until they’re nearly black and grind them up. There’s more to dandelions than meets the eye.”
“The fields are full of them right now,” I replied. “I don’t know if I saw as many before. We’d not need to buy coffee ever again.
“I had a friend back in England, who used to pick the young leaves from the moment they started growing in spring until this time, when the flowers started to appear. She’d eat them with everything, in a cheese sandwich or chopped into a fried egg – and as for the flowers, well, they’d go into a salad or something. If they grew the year through I’d say she’d never have to go to the shop.”
“Remember that dandelion wine?” James shook his head ruefully. “Some folks could make the ordinary into something fearful.”
We walked to the lake, cutting through a field of grass put by for silage, if it ever grows. It’s been one of the slowest springs I’ve known. I put it to James, who agreed. “There were years before,” he said, “when the fields were bare until the end of May and the cattle reduced to skin and bone. They were eating the sticks in the ditch they were that hungry, and the people were little better off. And then somehow, between the summer and the time that winter slipped in, the crop was saved and they survived. That was enough for them, back then. Now it’s not. Unless folks are moving forward in some way they aren’t happy.”
I stopped and gathered a fistful of dandelion leaves, carefully selecting the youngest, most tender ones from plants that had not yet flowered.
James was unimpressed. “Caisearbháin.” He used its Irish name. “It’s famine food, that’s all.”
Perhaps it was. In fact, I’m certain that it was, and while dandelions alone might not have saved lives they certainly alleviated the suffering of many. Throughout the spring and summer months it ought to be possible to gather enough greenery to keep oneself going. For those with a growing family to feed things might be painfully different. But those days are gone, hopefully never to return, and we can mess about with wild foods without having to rely on them.
Close to the shore of the lake a long-fallen alder provided support for a tangle of cleavers, or goosegrass, and I added a bunch of the pale green, square-shaped stems with their whorls of elongated leaves to my harvest.
The edibility of goosegrass depends very much on the eater. Some find the hooked hairs, which enable the plant to scramble over anything in its way, to be mildly irritating. They might even cause a rash, especially around the mouth. Cooking softens the hairs, but cooked goosegrass loses its already limited appeal. Still, it undoubtedly helped many a hungry mother care for her children.
In the rough pasture we found tender leaves of sorrel and after pausing to look over the wide expanse of water, where an occasional trout invited us to visit by splashing at the surface, made our way slowly home. I stopped at the hawthorn hedge to strip enough leaves to make a pot of tea, and then we were there, at the kitchen table, sorting through a makeshift lunch.
I had bread but no butter, and filled two slices with an assortment of leaves while James hacked away at huge lumps of cheddar and stuffed them into his mouth. When I offered him his salad sandwich he merely shook his head and thrust his knife into the pickle jar.
‘All the more for me, then.’ I took a bite and chewed methodically. While it wasn’t exactly bad, nor was it particularly good. Dandelions and cleavers have a certain dryness about them that no amount of chewing can undo.
Tea made from hawthorn leaves, however, is equal to the finest of the real thing. Next month, with the heat of summer fully on our backs, we shall enjoy it more than ever, sweetened and chilled.
Do try it – and in the meantime, don’t throw those weeds away!