Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Not-So Humble Dandelion

I couldn't resist this attractive gif when I found it on a blog to which I subscribe, called "Spydersden.

Funnily enough, or call it serendipity, I received on the same day, an email from my sister complaining about the number of dandelions swamping her Canadian garden.
This winter, there hasn't been as much snow as usual in Ontario - her garden usually looks like this -

and there is now in fact a bit of a drought with no snow-melt to swell all those rivers and lakes.
Ontario is a land of much water, a fact reflected in its beautiful  Native Indian tribal place-names.I make no apologies for referring here to a poem I knew by heart as a kid, and loved to recite with its repetitive but infinitely pleasing cadences - The Story of Hiawatha by Longfellow. Here is a brief extract that plays upon the beauty of those old names:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee, 
By the shining Big-Sea-Water, 
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, 
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. 
Dark behind it rose the forest, 
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, 
Rose the firs with cones upon them; 
Bright before it beat the water, 
Beat the clear and sunny water, 
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

But come what may, snow or no snow, rain or no rain, in April the hardy annual dandelions re-appear, in Canada, Cornwall, Corfu and China, and pretty much all over the world..

Dandelion - its English name comes from the French dent-de-lion, a reference to the jagged edges of its leaves.

 As kids, we were always told not to pick it or we would wet the bed, and indeed its common French name is pissenlit which  means just that.
To the majority of British gardeners it is a tiresome weed to be fought with nuclear weapons if necessary.
But to Greeks, it is a valuable food, there for the gathering in all the places where nutritious herbs and other plants grow wild, on sunny hillsides, in meadows, on any uncultivated land. Its bright golden head appears amidst the swathes of spring flowers, crowning a cluster of leaves and stems that are bursting with valuable nutrients.Spring is the best time to gather dandelions for eating, before the flowers appear, and indeed any other wild greens, with a re-appearance in autumn.

When I went to live at Kanoni, just outside the town of Corfu, after years of living in the town itself, I was stunned by the rich variety of plants, cultivated and wild, that burst into life in March and April each year.
To me, it was just a display of Nature's exuberant beauty, but to my mother-in-law, when she came to stay with us on a visit from Piraeus,  it was a glimpse of Paradise.

Like all Greek women, she had been brought up to value the plants and herbs that grew so abundantly in the countryside. Living in a city, she had little opportunity to get out and gather these freely available foodstuffs.
In Corfu, she was almost delirious with pleasure, and together we would set out with sharp knives and bags to gather  horta.

She taught me to identify many of the plants that could be eaten, as salads, steamed, sauteed or boiled, or as the filling in pies. Our expeditions were rewarding in every sense, and they brought us into a closer, warmer relationship. We found a way into an abandoned estate, where the old mansion had long ago disintegrated and been reclaimed by Nature, but where orchards and kitchen gardens had been left to their own devices and still flourished in a decadent, overblown way.

Two of the old Kanoni estates

We went home with bags of every kind of citrus fruit, with a great deal of horta, and with mushrooms and armsful of narcissus. We went, too, to the flat fields that surround the lagoon, heedless of the occasional aircraft landing not so very far away, our feet crunching on the millions of tiny snail shells that made up the springy surface below the grass and other plants. On the banks of the tributary streams that fed into the lagoon we found wild asparagus, wild celery and horseradish.
Sometimes we found ourselves searching the ruins of ancient Roman and Greek buildings, still not yet excavated - it is said that wherever you dig on the Kanoni peninsula you will strike an ancient building.

Ag. Theodora

Later, when my mother-in-law was too weakened by diabetes to come with me, I used to go out alone to pick horta for her. I was always joined then by Athina, a local woman living in what could only be called poverty, in a ramshackle shed, with her cows and sheep and goats, taking them out to feast on the lush Kanoni pasture every day. Athina was amused with my amateur horta-picking knowledge and did a great deal to encourage and teach me. She was an unmarried woman, the victim of the often cruel old dowry system - no dowry, nu husband. Despite her grimy hands and battered wellies, her grey hair and drab clothing, she was beautiful and had a classic grace about her that was worthy of the goddess for whom she was named.

My mother-in-law not only ate the boiled horta, she also drank the liquid it was boiled in, believing it to be good for her. Judging  by the quote from the Spydersden blog with which I am ending my own blog, she was right.

The Ancient Greeks knew the value of wild plants of all kinds, and used dandelion, which they predictably called leontodon, as a medicine for arthritis and rheumatism

When I was first married to my Greek husband, we spent a couple of years in England. I lived in a leafy suburb in Essex. as estate agents like to call such desirable habitats, and it was just a short walk from my home to the country lanes that were still not built upon. Dandelions grew there, leaves about 2 metres long it seemed to me, along with wild parsley, garlic and dill. I had learned that even the thistles had a tender heart that added its own flavour to the tangy mix of greens. I would walk home, the pushchair basket stuffed with loot, to be greeted by the neighbours with jocularity. 'You got rabbits, then,'
'No.' I would reply.' a Greek husband.'
That shut them up.

For those unwilling or unable to go horta-picking themselves, cultivated dandelions, if that is not an oxymoron, can be bought in greengrocers' shops and markets. There are several varieties, but they are all, as far as I know, called radikia.


They come neatly trimmed and bundled and require very little preparation. An easy way to obtain your dandelions, if you like, but for me nothing can compare with the pleasure of searching for the edible plants,bending down to inhale the satisfying fragrances of soil, moss and herbs, separating the tender young leaves from the tougher old ones. You learn not to mind worms and beetles and even spiders, and you begin to truly appreciate the variety and complexity of Nature.

Just look at the dandelion clock for example, a cluster of tiny seeds on delicate, fragile parachutes, just waiting for a breeze, a passing animal or human, to assist in the distribution of those seeds far and wide. Simple? I think not. It gives rise to some very deep questions about how such efficiency evolved.
I recommend picking edible plants as a highly therapeutic exercise, one that challenges the brain and the back!.

Here is an extract from the Spydersden blog. that got me thinking (and reminiscing) about dandelion foraging.
" The ubiquitous dandelion, that perennial bane of lawn fetishists all across the land, is one of the healthiest food items on the planet. Instead of spraying it with herbicides every spring and thus saturating our lawns in poison that finds its way into water supplies, other plants, and the food chain, we should be feeding the dandelion to ensure its continued growth and the resultant nutritional values it provides.

According to the USDA Bulletin #8, "Composition of Foods" (Haytowitz and Matthews 1984), dandelions rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value. Minnich, in "Gardening for Better Nutrition" ranks them, out of all vegetables, including grains, seeds and greens, as tied for 9th best. Dandelions are nature's richest green vegetable source of beta-carotene, from which Vitamin A is created, and the third richest source of Vitamin A of all foods, after cod-liver oil and beef liver. They also are particularly rich in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, cobalt, zinc, boron, molybdenum, vitamin D, and the B vitamins, thiamine and riboflavin, and are a good source of protein.

Internally, dandelion is especially important in promoting the formation of bile and removing excess water from the body. The root decidedly affects all forms of secretions and excretion from the body. By removing poisons from the system, it acts as a tonic and stimulant as well. It cleanses the blood and liver. It is especially good as a blood cleanser for diabetes, dropsy, and eczema. Because of its high mineral content, it is used to treat anemia. It reduces serum cholesterol and uric acid levels. Lukewarm dandelion tea is useful for dyspepsia with constipation, fever, and insomnia.

Dandelion improves the functioning of the pancreas, kidneys, spleen, and stomach. An infusion of the fresh root is good for gallstones, jaundice, and other liver problems. For stomachaches, drink 1/2 cup of the infusion every 30 minutes until relief is obtained. The root is a specific for hypoglycemia. Take a cup of the tea 2-3 times a day and maintain a balanced diet. With a good diet, the root tea can eliminate adult-onset diabetes. The root tea will also help lower blood pressure, thus aiding the action of the heart.
Dandelion relieves menopausal symptoms and is useful for boils (taken internally), breast tumors, cirrhosis of the liver, constipation, liver and spleen enlargement, fluid retention, hepatitis, bronchitis, low blood sugar, and rheumatism. It may help prevent age spots on the skin. Serious cases of hepatitis have been cured with the use of dandelion root tea within a week or two when the diet is controlled properly and limited to easily digested foods.
The fresh juice is particularly effective, but a tea can also be prepared. Dandelion leaves are healthful as salad greens, especially in springtime. The roasted root is a nutrient rich coffee substitute."
And here is an interesting link.

It gives an extract from the book

The link takes you to the excellent page on dandelions, but before you rush off and buy the only copy left at - read the customer reviews!

Apart from my own photos, I must thank my sister Katy, Frosso and Bob of Spydersden, for the use of theirs.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


There is so much more to Easter in Corfu than bunnies and eggs and fashion parades. I hope the following will interest you – and maybe inspire you to join us next year!

This weekend it is Easter for the Western Church. Easter will be celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and thus here in Corfu, in one week’s time, on April 15. The dates of Easter are calculated according to different calendars by each Church – the Julian and the Gregorian, and this causes the difference in the dates of all other Christian festivals that arise from Easter, such as Lent and Whitsun/Pentecost. It can  fairly be said that Easter is the most important festival in the Orthodox calendar.

Here in Corfu there is a sizeable Catholic community that has existed since 1310. Today, the majority of the Catholics are of Maltese descent – their forefathers having been brought here by the British during the years of the Protectorate, as builders and agricultural workers.
By special dispensation of the Pope, permission was granted about fifty years ago for the Catholics of Corfu (and subsequently of other Catholic bishoprics in Greece) to celebrate Easter at the same time as the overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox population, for the sake of family harmony – a dispensation which to my mind shows an admirable sensitivity to the needs of minorities which could well be copied by others in today’s world of religion and politics.

Easter in Corfu is a great and wonderful celebration, a time when something quite remarkable happens every year. Strangers are welcomed to the island and into its homes, families come together again, the occasion is celebrated with great pomp, ceremony and reverence, and with traditions so old their origins are long forgotten. The meaning of Easter is not forgotten however, nor is it played down. The terrible fact of the Crucifixion, the agony, is there for all to see, in the form of the graphic images portrayed on the great Crucifixes in the churches, some of them carrying the Crown of Thorns upon them, others displaying a wreath made of flowers.

We do not only remember the horror of the Crucifixion, however, we remember too the joy and the hope represented by the Resurrection.
Throughout Holy Week, the TV channels play films with a religious theme; many people fast for that one week at least. And there is a sense of expectation, a waiting, for the release that comes with the declaration of the Resurrection, at midnight on Easter Saturday.
Devout, lukewarm, or disbelieving - no-one can fail to be drawn into the atmosphere of Easter in Corfu.

 One very attractive Easter custom, beloved of children especially, is to dye eggs red. Other colours are possible, but shiny red eggs really do symbolize Easter for most people. The dyeing takes place on the Thursday of Holy Week.

On Good Friday (Megali Paraskevi) I usually accompany my daughter to the home of friends who live next door to one of Corfu’s ancient monasteries. We sit and talk quietly in their lovely Corfiot garden, waiting for the bell to announce the exodus of the priests with the Crucifix and the traditional ‘Epitaphios’ or funeral bier, empty but decorated by the women and girls of the parish with fresh flowers from their own gardens. There is a choir, and for the next hour the parishioners will walk their parish, singing solemn songs. This is the day when we recall the Descent of Christ from the Cross.

It is a day of solemnity, of restrained behaviour and sombre clothing and ends with the Epitaphios procession in town, from the Cathedral, accompanied by dignitaries both religious and secular, the odd visiting celebrity, bands and choirs. The atmosphere is amazing – a huge crowd of people, standing quietly, with none of the uneasiness common to crowds in many of our modern cities.
But overnight something changes and on Saturday (Megalo Savvato) an almost irrepressible sense of celebration and joy is waiting to erupt. The day begins very early, with the strange and wonderful re-enactment of the earthquake that followed the Resurrection, according to the Bible – this takes place at the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary of Strangers in the town. Members of the church congregation shake and rattle the church furniture and stagger about in a vivid demonstration. There is then a procession in the town of Corfu on Saturday morning, in commemoration of yet another of Saint Spyridon’s miraculous interventions that saved Corfu from famine, and the magnificent Philharmonic bands are to be heard again.

At 11.00, there is an event that has become synonymous with Easter in Corfu, that attracts more attention than any other custom at this time, and yet is possibly of pagan origin rather than Christian. It celebrates the First Resurrection and is called the ‘botides’ in Corfiot Greek, this being the local name of the great clay pots that feature in the ceremony. .

 All over the island people throw pots and china out of their windows at this time, as a gesture to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck and happiness. In the town, however, everyone gathers at the spot called ‘Pentofanaro’, at the end of the Liston, where the tall old houses cluster tightly. The balconies are draped with crimson hangings, and filled with people who are balancing huge clay pots, filled with water, on the railings. There is a buzz of excited anticipation and then, precisely at eleven, the pots are dropped and hurled from above, to shatter on the street below. 

Immediately afterwards the bands trot through the alleyways at a run, playing appropriately allegro marches.
The islanders spend the rest of the day preparing for the feasting of Sunday, while visitors enjoy seeing old friends or exploring the island which looks breathtakingly beautiful at this time of year, garlanded with wild flowers of impossible variety.

For as long as I can remember, we always went in to Corfu Town, to the Esplanade, to witness the declaration of the Resurrection by the Archbishop with the impressive firework display that follows. The size of the crowds, the absence of parking anywhere near the centre of town, having toddlers who inevitably fall asleep and have to be carried, means that our family now usually joins in the celebrations outside town. If it is at all possible to attend the celebrations in the centre of town, it is an experience never to be forgotten. 
With the announcement of the Resurrection ; Christos Anesti! - by the priest, candles are lit, kisses exchanged, and then there is a spectacular fireworks display , now set off very professionally, but I do remember one year, a long time ago, when the setting off of the fireworks was the task of the military, most of whom were National Servicemen of limited experience. Their calculations were off, and rockets hissed and snaked their way across the Main Square at ground level, exploding at people’s feet. Luckily there were no major injuries and these days our firework displays are properly performed high in the sky.

Immediately after the Resurrection ceremony, most people go home or to a restaurant, ostensibly to break the fast of Holy Week, with a meal beginning with the traditional Easter soup called Mayeritsa. Made from finely chopped offal, with masses of lettuce, dill, spring onions, and lemon, and sometimes finished off with egg and lemon sauce stirred in, it is so delicious that we always wonder why we don’t make it more often.

Everone tries to get home with their candles still alight, and it is customary to daub the sign of the cross on the door lintel with the flame of the candle.

Our family always spends Easter Sunday together, as indeed do most families in Corfu. We roast a lamb or a goat as well as a selection of other meats and sausages, and there are salads and dips and jacket potatoes done under the spit that invariably get forgotten in the excitement and end up as inedible and carbonized. The wine flows, the red eggs are cracked with everyone trying to have the one that beats all the others. The roasting and basting, testing and carving, of the meat is very much the province of the men on this special day.

It was a slim lamb that year!

My son bakes a wonderful choice of bread, my daughter produces a bowl of tzatziki big enough to feed an army, and everyone who joins us brings a contribution. We have a very cosmopolitan group of friends, and some of these dishes are truly exotic. In spite of appetites honed by a varying number of days of fasting, there is always plenty left over to provide the basis of meals for the next few days and the dogs enjoy a bone-fest of their own.

There are so many Easter traditions that make this event such a memorable occasion. New clothes and shoes are bought, especially for children, with god-parents expected to foot the bill, as well as for the elaborate ‘lambades’ (decorated candles) that the child will take to be lit at the Resurrection ceremony. These days commerce enters the picture with Barbie-themed candles or Toy Story or whatever other kids’ tie-in toy is currently popular.
There are special sweets and cookies for the occasion, and in Corfu, sweet bread decorated with a red egg and feathers, called a colombina, is a reminder of the Venetian period of Corfu’s history.
When I was first married, I found myself, a few days before Easter, with my mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law, all up to our elbows in dough made with olive oil, sugar, flour and vanilla. These ingredients were mixed in a huge earthenware bowl, very old, kept especially for this purpose and stored for the rest of the year under clean cloth. Under Grandma’s beady, critical eye, we kneaded and mixed until she was satisfied, then shaped the dough into twists and plaits, circles and knots, and placed them in neat rows upon enormous metal baking trays, which were then taken, in convoy, to the local baker to be baked. A kind of shortbread, the quality varied from household to household, the best being like shortbread, the worst like sweet concrete. It was the custom to distribute them amongst family and friends. They were called ‘koulourakia’, koulouri meaning a circle, and are still very much part of the Easter menu..

My life in Greece can be measured in Easters, each one of them a memory of what it means to be part of a loving family, Anglo-Greek style.


Some of the photos are my own, others appear by kind permission of Aleka, Joanna, Frosso, the Corfubloggers, and Julie.