Saturday 26 January 2013

Dandelion wine

This morning I've been prepping my Envir Chem class on Radon, whc is due for delivery (breathe, push, pause, repeat) on Tuesday.  Couldn't do Radon without elementary radio-chemistry, and then you have to mention Chernobyl and Fukushima.  And like Proust and his madelaine, just thinking about Chernobyl transported me back to that weekend in April 1986.  We were living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne then. Since returning from Boston 3 years earlier we'd been getting more serious about fermentation.  Not only was I making a lot of bread, we were also making a variety of alcoholic bevvies.  Anything that could be fermented seemed to finish up bubbling in a 1 gallon demi-john in our house: elderflower, elderberry, dandelion, strawberry, plum, parsnip, old tea, old inner-tubes - we'd brewed them all.  You had to brew enough to get ahead of yourself, because they all improved a LOT with keeping, and we were stipping the enamel off our teeth with some of the first taste product.  Dandelion was a favorite: golden in colour, intriguing in flavor, forgiving the day after.  The only down-side was they you had to take the yellow bits (the ray-florets botanists call them because they're not petals but individual mini-flowers) and discard every bit of stalk and green bract.  Failure to do this separation (by hand, each flower head separately) could release fungicides into your brew and kill the yeast. 
In the Spring of 1986 I decided to scale up from the piffling 6 bottles that you could squeeze out of a gallon to a 25 lt batch in a big plastic brew-bucket.  Accordingly we took the bus out to the meadows in Rowland's Gill, SW of Newcastle and spent the whole of Sunday morning picking bushels of brilliant yellow dandelions.  Eeee it were great: like being immersed in that painting by van Gogh.  Back home after lunch, the whole family sat on the stoop of our terraced house in the sun and twisted rayflorets off until our hands went black.  Then we washed our hands, had a cup of tea, and went back to twisting.  It was a huge investment, but eventually we got the brew all-sugared up  and starting to fizz.
So imagine our annoyance and chagrin the following evening when The Man told us that a reactor in the Ukraine had blown it's top and sent a plume of radioactive strontium, iodine and caesium across the meadows in which we'd been frolicking.
Never having dealt with a barrel of ferment before, I was really reluctant to tip the experiment down the drain. So we left it bubbling away in a warm corner.  And when it was finished, the marginal cost of bottling it seemed trivial, so we did that and left 30 golden bottles on a rack in a dark place.  And then it seemed sensible - it was an experiment in the qualities and economies of scale, after all - to open a bottle after a few weeks to taste it.
Maybe it was the added Sieverts of radioactivity, but that first taster was delicious and over the next few months we downed the whole batch, each bottle better than the one before as it matured.

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