The Wild bunch
Nettles and dandelions
By Carolyn Best
The end-of-winter famine, once a near-annual occurrence for our ancestors, is unknown in modern Europe and North America, where there is a constant surfeit of produce in our stores – though it has often been a long time and a long journey since it was growing in the ground. As the cold season finally draws to a close, I feel a special longing for something fresh and wild, the edible plants that I can pick for myself in country fields or woodland glades. The following two of “the wild bunch” are what I think of as the heralds of springtime.
As the long winter ends and Demeter’s daughter Persephone returns to the earth, dark green nettles emerge, jumping out from the black earth as though from the loam of old stories. From the earliest ages, they have fed both humans and their domestic animals and provided raw material for a fiber so useful that the 18th-century poet Thomas Campbell could write: “In Scotland I have eaten nettles, slept in nettle sheets and dined off a nettle tablecloth.” Burial cloths from the Bronze Age were made of nettle, while the wild swans in the Irish tale of the Children of Lir could not regain their human shapes until provided with coats made of spun nettles. Whether woven into the fishnet of Loki, the trickster god of Norse mythology, or the ropes of the indigenous people of North America, nettles have been used and praised throughout many different cultures. Our ancestors joyfully greeted their reappearance after the hungry times of late winter.
Dandelion, from the French dent-de-lion (meaning “tooth of the lion”), has been called by many names. To some, it is “pissenlit” or “pee in the bed,” a reference to the strong diuretic effect of its roots. In other places, dandelion was known as the Shepherd’s Clock because its flowers open at sunrise and close at dusk. Dandelion manifests the heavenly bodies – a yellow flower for the sun, a silver white puffball for the moon and the dispersing cloud of seeds like the uncountable stars of heaven.
Picking dandelions one bright May morning, the tale of Baldur from Norse mythology washed over me like a flood. When Baldur the Beautiful, the god of light, was killed through the treachery of Loki, all living beings on the earth were cast into a deep grief. Leaves fell, grasses dried and browned, and flowers dropped their heads; even the fierce wolves in the mountains wept. But saddest of all were the dwarves who dwelt in their subterranean homes beneath the Black Mountain. Skilled beyond all other metal smiths, they forged weapons and made exquisite treasures for Odin, Thor and the other gods. Theirs was a hard and wearying existence, but sometimes Baldur smiled down on them from the world above. Then his light would filter through cracks in the rock and cast its beams into the gloomy caverns where they toiled over their forges and anvils, filling each dwarf’s heart with joy. How great was their sorrow to learn that Baldur was dead, for who can endure to dwell in eternal darkness and cold without any hope of light or warmth? At length, Odin took pity on the dwarves and brought them the few lingering fragments of Baldur’s lost light, so that they might make lanterns to illuminate their gloomy caverns. And the grateful dwarves, wishing to share the gift with humankind, drilled a tunnel up through the rock and used it to scatter some of the light on the mountain slopes. Wherever the shining dust fell to the ground, the first dandelions sprang up – bright blooms to remember Baldur, fairest spoken and most gracious of all the Norse Gods, who is doomed to remain in the Underworld until he is released to fight at Ragnarok, the great battle that will end the world.
Simple Nettle Soup
Tibetan legend says that the great Buddhist sage and poet Milarepa (1052CE–1135CE) lived on nettle soup for so many years that he eventually turned green.
Take young spring nettles and chop them finely. Fill a soup pot 1/2 full of them. Cover with water and bring to a boil while adding some finely chopped onion and salt. After they have simmered for a few minutes, add some milk and serve.
Dandelion Leaves with Potatoes
Dandelions, holding a great wealth of vitamins and minerals, are a treasure to eat in the spring. They are delicious combined with potatoes. One easy option is to boil and panfry potatoes, then toss in dandelion leaves at the end for a few minutes.
Alternatively, cool the boiled potatoes and cut them in chunks. Dress them with olive oil, red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar and add salt to taste, then mix in chopped dandelion leaves for a pleasant salad.
Carolyn Best is the former owner/chef of The Pantry, a well-loved vegetarian tearoom that operated for many years in the Glebe Community Centre.