One of the obscure recipes in Sanborn C. Brown’s 1981 book, Wines & Beers of Old New England (related post) is for a class of wines known as “family wines.” These were wines made from almost anything on hand, and consisted primarily of table sugar as the fermentable base, flavored by any of dozens of fruits, vegetables, flowers, or plants.
Dandelion wine, one of the family wines thus described, is the theme of a pleasant passage in the wispy memory of my early childhood. A scene of hazy visuals is all that is left to recall the picking of buckets of dandelions with my parents, one spring afternoon at about age 6 or 7. When a child is invited to go picking lots and lots of flowers, he may or may not think to question why; I did ask, and Dad explained, with Mom’s eager assent: they were about to make dandelion wine. This event seems intertwined with other memories of the same period, when we hunted morel mushrooms, and often stopped the car by the side of the road to inspect wild asparagus plants on the roadside. They were probably inspired by one of Euell Gibbons’ books which had become popular at the time.
I also have a somewhat later memory of encountering the finished wine occasionally, where the last couple of bottles were stored in a neglected place in an outbuilding (perhaps saved for a special occasion). My father had bottled it in dark green bottles, that had a picture of a duck or a goose on the label. Could it have been Cold Duck? I seem to remember that name, which might have appealed to a child when he saw it on the picnic table during a backyard cookout. Whatever bottles they were, they were sealed with a plastic champagne stopper. At about eight years old, I had no interest at all in trying the contents, but the bottles were appealing, and I was curious enough on at least a few occasions to slip off the stopper and give it a sniff. The scent was unique, and reserved for itself a small corner of my olfactory bulb, where it lie dormant for decades after.
Suddenly it was decades after, and it was a perfect day in May; dandelion blossoms were everywhere, and I had the day off. I decided to give it a go.
Sandy Brown indicates that you need about a gallon of blossoms for a gallon of wine. How arbitrary, yet comforting, in its simplicity. As I grabbed at hundreds of blossoms and plucked them and put them in a container, it seemed that I had done this before. Perhaps it is not just the olfactory bulb that retains early memories.
Brown then instructs that the green base of each flower must be separated from the yellow petals themselves, which are the quarry; particular attention should be paid to preventing any part of the tubular stem from entering the batch. This is something that my parents either did not do, or did not trust to a young child, because it was entirely new to me, and I had to experiment a bit to get the hang of it. By the time I was done, I had developed a very efficient method of using thumb and forefinger to grip the bunch of yellow petals, the base of which was just inside of the green collar at the base, and gently separate them from the base. My finger became blistered from the work, but it went more quickly than expected. Below is just the beginning of what became a large mound of stripped petals.
I selected a one-gallon wine jug in which to ferment it. It was not easy getting the plucked petals into the jug, as you can see. It takes some patience.
Brown then instructs us to add three quarts of boiling water and let it stand for seven days, stirring once a day. I added the boiling water and then covered the mouth of the jug with cheesecloth. In less than a day, I found that the mixture had begun fermenting already, just from the wild yeasts and the nectar in the flowers. In fact, some of it had gushed out of the jug so that I had to pour some of it out to make room.
I let it go for just five days, after which it had settled down. By now, it had the beginnings of that characteristic scent that I remember from the Cold Duck bottles. But it was still quite different. Then I strained out the petals and added a boiled sugar solution to the water as the recipe instructs (see below for the full recipe). The resulting liquor was an interesting yellowish color. Soon, bubbles were coming out of the fermentation lock. I followed the rest of the recipe exactly.
Several weeks afterward, I sampled it. That childhood olfactory memory was instantly revived. With a strong recognition of the scent came a warm and familiar sense of an obscure facet of a long-remembered home. It is not a flowery scent; not delicious, yet not off-putting either. Its taste, in its uniqueness, needs to be acquired, but it can be acquired rather readily.
To my knowledge, true dandelion wine is not available commercially, although I have seen some products that say they are flavored with dandelions. To learn the scent, you have to try it yourself.
Results: After six months, the end product was good enough to drink and unique enough to hoard. Just like my parents, I turn out to have reserved two bottles in a neglected spot in my cellar; aged several years now, probably long past its prime, it awaits that special occasion which, if I am anything like my parents, may never come. Those two bottles in the outbuilding from my childhood? They were left there when we moved away — too precious to drink for such a long time that they were probably entirely forgotten.