Those of you who have been with me from the beginning of this blog will remember that for the first half of its life every day had an “on this day” theme. I wandered away from the idea for a number of reasons, but today a lovely little sad story begs me to take notice.
On this day in 1849, the literary Brontë sisters Anne (1820-1849), Charlotte (1816-1855) and their friend Ellen Nussey travelled by train from their home in Yorkshire to the seaside town of Scarborough. Anne was ill with consumption, and as their brother Bramwell and sister Emily had both died of consumption within the previous year, she was under no illusions as to the seriousness of her condition. She decided to use her small inheritance to fund the trip, in the hope that the sea air would be beneficial. As soon as they arrived, the young women treated themselves to dandelion coffee, and bought season tickets for the spa and the famous Cliff Bridge. Sadly, it was too late for Anne, who was already very ill and frail, and she died in their lodging house only a few days later.
We have considered some of the culinary uses of the dandelion and several of the substances used as coffee substitutes in previous blog posts, but I don’t believe we have ever considered dandelion coffee in the past. Nowadays some folk prefer to use alternative “coffees” for negative health reasons – that is, they chose to avoid real coffee because of its perceived injurious effects. In other times the choice was often made because of the perceived health benefits of the substitute itself.
The other motivations for using coffee substitutes are unavailability of the real thing due to circumstances such as war. The protagonists of the American Civil War were particularly creative in this regard, if we are to to judge from passionate claims made in correspondence to various southern newspapers of the time and which we must continue to explore in more detail in a future post.
The dandelion has a longstanding reputation as a healing herb. The first half of its botanical name (Taraxacum officinale) comes from a Greek word indicating to alter or to change, and refers to the belief that use of it can alter the state of the blood. In the past it has been used as a panacea for all sorts of ills, especially as a diuretic and for “derangements of the liver”
The editors of the OED first note the phrase “dandelion coffee” in 1852, but they have clearly missed some earlier references – perhaps because it was made in the household or by individual pharmacists, therefore rarely mentioned in print until it started to be made commercially on a larger scale (perhaps “on the Continent” in the mid-1850’s).
Dandelion coffee was not a cheap alternative in the Bronte sisters’ time. It was a relatively expensive medicinal treat - which seems surprising given that the dandelion grows like a weed in Britain but the coffee bean is of course imported. As with many substitutes, dandelion coffee can be used “straight”, or it can be mixed with the real thing, as the recipes below show.
Strangely, or perhaps not, prolonged exposure to ersatz anything sometimes leads to the development of a preference for it against the real thing. It certainly seems that chicory “coffee” is the beverage of choice for some citizens of some southern states of the USA, and in Holland for example.
Dr Harrison, of Edinburgh, prefers dandelion coffee to that of Mecca; and many persons all over the Continent prefer a mixture of succory and coffee to coffee alone. Dig up the roots of dandelion, wash them well but do not scrape them; dry them, cut them in bits, the size of peas, and then roast them in an earthen pot or coffee-roaster of any kind, and grind them in the coffee mill, or bruise them in any way. The great secret of good coffee is to have it fresh-burnt and fresh-ground.
British Husbandry, by John French Burke, 1811
Good colonial coffee, 3 parts; hard extract of dandelion, 1 part; chicory, 1 part. Reduce them to coarse powder, and mix and grind them together.
The United States practical receipt book, 1844
Quotation for the Day.
Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine, are weak dilutions; the surest poison is time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson