Living off the land

By J. Carmichael – Own work, Public Domain,

I mentioned in passing in Fighting for Birds (p103) a conversation with a man in the Nene Valley who told me that when he was a lad he had been able to fill a baker’s tray with Lapwing eggs in an afternoon. I somehow doubt that you could do that in a full day with a fast car and the whole of Northamptonshire at your disposal these days. Such is the loss of wild abundance.

I was reminded of this when reading an old recipe book (Home Made Country Wines, Countrywise Books, compiled by Dorothy Wise, 1964, 5 shillings) where the first of four recipes for Dandelion wine required 1 gallon of Dandelion heads  (no stalks!) a gallon of water, an orange, a lemon and loads of sugar.  I do know what a gallon is, but I’m slightly struggling to work out how many Dandelion heads are needed for a gallon of them. More than are in my quite dandelioned lawn though I think.

Still, maybe I should give it a go. And then there is May wine (only 2 pints of May blossom needed),  Oak leaf wine (a gallon of oak leaves), various elderflower and elderberry concoctions and several Cowslip wines (as well as lots of garden fruit, flower and vegetable wines).

These recipes either say something about the desperation of country people for alcohol, the price of that alcohol or the abundance of the ingredients. Or perhaps how much time people had without TV and mobile phones to get out and pluck.

Hic! Pass the Rioja por favor.




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13 Replies to “Living off the land”

  1. I can remember my paternal grandmother making country wines, rhubarb, potato and a powerful concoction she called jungle juice, which I know had some sort of flowers and orange juice as a base perhaps it was dandelions. Pleasant childhood memories she has been gone since I was sixteen , fifty years ago. Does anybody make such wines now I wonder? The world then seemed a place full of wildflowers and lapwings.

  2. It's hard to imagine oak leaf wine being a very pleasant drink. Presumably it recommends - like winter moth larvae - using the leaves when they are young and fresh and before they are flushed with tannins?

    1. Apparently it goes well with pork, according to customer review:

    2. I once made oak leaf wine using a recipe from the classic "First Steps in Winemaking" by C.J.J. Berry. It was surprisingly good, very light and refreshing.

  3. My grandfather used to float a piece of toast covered in yeast on the top of the bowl in which dandelion wine was fermenting. When bottled it was kept in the cellar and if I was sent to fetch a bottle I had to keep whistling all the time until I had delivered it. It took me ages to realise you cant whistle and drink at the same time!

  4. Hi Mark

    I have always foraged in a responsible way, coming from an impoverished East Midlands background, and learnt much from elderly relatives on living on the land in a low level way (I'm sure I could have been taught a lot more had I then inquired but I didnt). I make elderflower cordial and wine, and elderberry/blackberry wine in autumn - I see it as a way to use a small amount of resource from the village. I certainly wouldn't take anything that was not in abundance, and agree that I would probably struggle to find enough Dandelion, although we did find about a litre or so of dandelion flowers (4.5 litres or 9 standard household measuring jugs to a gallon) about 20 years ago in a nearby field and made a respectable wine from it. I certainly wouldn't advocate some of the old recipes such as Cowslip Wine came back into fashion, though. And we have spectacularly failed to tap our garden birch tree for sap this to study again for next year maybe! (A gallon of sap is supposed to be gatherable in a night from a mature birch with no ill effect)

  5. When you are getting your gallon of dandelion heads, no stalks, do you have to really press them and pack them into the gallon container or are they just loose as gathered? I've always wondered. I mean if you press and pack then you'll double the amount you gather.

    I reckon I could easily get a full gallon of either though from around here. Not sure I'd want to though. Not with dandelions growing in both the dog leg zone and down at lorry and bus exhaust level. Could get a bit dodgy. Then again, if this govt. keep on with its puritanism then homebrew might be the only way to self medicate and hell with the side effects.

    1. loose packing. the key with flower wines is a short steeping (about 24 hr) in boiled water, to make an extract, which is then strained off the flower bits, and the extract used with yeast, nutrient and sugar (and often half a cup of cold black tea) to create the ferment.


    2. You have to pull the petals off the heads. Allegedly the rest of the flower head imparts a bitter taste to the wine, it says here. The wine can be improved further by discarding the dandelion petals before they come into contact with any of the other ingredients.

  6. Of lapwing nest memories, Dad used to have a home made gadget he'd push under the nest (what there was of it) lift it up and move it from in front of the tractor so he didn't destroy the eggs then after he'd passed with the tractor he'd replace the nest and eggs and watch the bird return to continue incubating. In his day no agri-welfare payments he did it simply because he loved the green plovers/peewits.

    Of dandelions I recall making a coffee substitute with the roots. Quite nice for a change and there was that kind of odd satisfaction about it being more natural and. as you'd not totally decimated an area you'd simply shared nature's bounty with other fauna. Thankfully the country lanes then were vastly different from the agri-industrialised highways needed for the monster machines we see in hedgeless monocultures. There are still a few idyllic pastoral places secreted away but they dwindle as they are bought up and amalgamated or converted to pony-paddocks.

  7. Had some nettle soup last Saturday. We have a plentiful supply on the old railway line behind our house. Not a country wine I know but still foraged locally and tasted fine. Don't worry there will still be plenty of nettles left for the butterflies.

  8. Maybe mobile phones and tv have slowed down the degradation of our nature?
    Until, of course, a tv programme or a mobile phone website encourages the public to get out there and forage.

  9. I wonder how many kids could identify a dandelion? Or a cowslip? I remember being impressed by a friend at school, casually pulling up a "weed" from an overgrown patch next to the sports hall and eating its root whole. He explained they were called pignuts and gave me one to try.


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