Yes, it’s that time when the dandelions bloom. Oddly I react to this in a rather different fashion from say, the other people on our street. Rather than throwing up my hands in dismay, I start calling around to see who I can browbeat into coming dandelion picking with me. Fortunately, I have very dedicated friends.
We start out at a nearby farm, where I can be sure they don’t spray. Dandelions are everywhere at this time of year, but because you aren’t washing them, it’s fairly essential to avoid any area that might be contaminated- where they might have been sprayed, or alongside highways where they would have absorbed exhaust. This year I lucked out and my friend who helped me last year and I dragged along a very enthusiastic young friend of ours, who made it into something of a competition. You want to be careful when picking- only pick the good, healthy looking ones, not ones that are about to go to seed or ones that have mostly closed. You’ll want to go when the sun is out for this reason. You also want to avoid picking the ones covered in bugs to the extent possible, though you may find yourself fighting off ants as you start to process the dandelions.
We ended up with about three plastic grocery bags full of dandelions. This was fantastic. Until I got ready to dehead them. Because the sticking point of dandelion wine is that you only use the petals- not the green part, which makes the wine bitter. This is a slow, tedious, pain in the royal ass process. It takes forever. I end up leaving a lot of the little green leaves in, figuring I’m set as long as I cut off the bulk of the stem. I was assisted in the process by the handsome fella, who I guilted into helping by handing him a paring knife. It still took us most of the week, and a lot of episodes of Battlestar Gallactica to get through the entire heap. We set ourselves up with cookie sheets so we could make piles, and this worked out nicely. Another warning: your hands will turn colors, and will remain stained for the entire remainder of the week.
The fruits of our labor. You can’t really see, but this is a five gallon bucket and it is over a third of the way full.
We picked on Monday the 18th, and finished deheading on Thursday. So it wasn’t until Friday night that I finally made the wine. I stored the dandelions in the fridge from night to night to try and keep them from getting too wilty. Last year I actually had to freeze them, because I had to wait until I got yeast. I will tell you this: they are a lot easier to cut when they are fresh. The longer you wait, the squishier they get.
When making dandelion (or any other flower) wine, start as early as possible. If you are fortunate enough to have entire days at your disposal, start at dawn. I unfortunately could not start until I came home from work. At that point, I dumped all the petals into my trusty, recently sterilized (with vinegar and boiling water) food grade bucket, along with six pounds (yes, you read that right) of organic sugar.
The recipe I use calls for two pounds of sugar per gallon of water, along with a gallon of dandelion petals. I still don’t have the faintest idea what a gallon of dandelion petals looks like, so I just translate it to “a lot.” I also add the peel and juice of two (organic) lemons and two (organic) oranges, and a pound of golden raisins. This is the one part of the process that irritates the hell out of me. Here I am trying to make a truly local, free from the backyard alcoholic beverage, and it requires me to not only buy unlocal fruits, it requires me to buy them in the middle of April. One day I will figure out how to substitute something else in order to get the acid I need. Something local.
Over the whole mess I pour three gallons of boiling water. I used bottled water because our well water is so mineral packed I was afraid it would impart a strange taste to the end product. It definitely has a strange taste if you leave it out even overnight, and try to drink it the next day. Even after it’s been filtered.
You may have noticed that no yeast has been added yet. That’s because at this point, the water in the bucket is just under boiling temperature. The yeast needs to be added when the temperature is more like 105-110. That’s right. The whole mess (called the “must”) needs to sit out for hours until it cools. And it does take hours. This time it took about seven. I recommend covering it with a towel to keep out bugs and curious dogs (ours was really, really fascinated by the whole process and really, really wanted to put his nose in the bucket).
If you’re doing the math correctly, you will realize that when it came time to add the yeast it was sometime in the wee hours of the night. 2AM, to be precise. That’s right. I set my alarm for 2AM on a Friday night (we had passed out sometime around 11), got up, dragged myself downstairs, scooped out a cup of must, and added yeast. Click to enlarge and see the full magic.
I’m pretty impressed how well the pictures turned out, considering how cracked out I was feeling. As I stood under the dim illumination of the over the stove light, taking endless pictures of yeast bubbling in a pyrex measuring cup, it did occur to me that I might be insane. But after all, it’s only once a year, right? It’s good to have a tradition. You can see as the pictures progress (it’s over the course of 15 very sleepy minutes in which I constantly checked the time) how the dried yeast from the packet starts to dissolve and the whole mess starts to bubble like crazy.
I will admit, there’s something fairly wild and joyous about standing in the middle of your kitchen at 2AM, in the dark, stirring yeast into a bucket of what appears to be muck, but which is actually carefully collected petals. It starts to bubble and hiss almost instantly, and the smell of yeast is overpowering. I was tempted to laugh hysterically (that could have been the lack of sleep), but didn’t want to wake up the handsome fella.
I do love me some magic brew.
To be continued!
If you weren’t here for the dandelion making of last year, catch up now!