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How Dandelions Saved Norway in World War I
In 1918, Norway was in trouble. World War I was raging across Europe, and although this Scandinavian backwater zealously guarded its neutrality, the conflict could not be kept entirely at bay. The war cut off the country from the maritime trade that had sustained it for centuries, and Norway descended into a period known as dyrtiden—literally, “the expensive time.”
On 13 January, a new rationing system came into effect. It limited the purchase and consumption of sugar, coffee, grain, and flour. For Norwegians, who even today subsist in great part on bread and coffee, the situation was dire.
Enter the dandelion. Taraxacum officinale grows abundantly and enthusiastically here, and with enough time and tenacity you could use it to supplement your official rations.
One roadblock to dandelion consumption was mental. Newspapers of the time described dandelions as excellent food for pigs and “one of the best things that one can offer to rabbits,” which were easy to raise and recommended as an additional source of protein if only one could feed them for free. To admit that the situation had grown so desperate that one was reduced to eating livestock feed must have smarted. The dandelion’s reputation as a hard-to-kill weed also contributed to the prevailing negative attitude towards the plant. As a certain “K.W.” wrote in the magazine Hjemmenes Vel:
In this time of food shortages, I am amazed that housewives…do not even attempt to make anything from dandelions. “But dandelions aren’t food!” they will say; and while they may not be as nutritious as bread or potatoes, they are health itself.
The introduction of ration cards seems to have spurred people to reevaluate their prejudices. While ads for dandelion coffee had appeared as early as 1917, the substance only really took off when rationing forced people to seek alternatives to real coffee. Aftenposten, one of Oslo’s most respected newspapers, published an article about the “helping hand” extended by “this fiendish weed” just a week after rationing began. It included a taste test:
Dandelion coffee looks exactly like regular coffee, with a warm brown tone. Somewhat different opinions were expressed by the select group in which it, with added cream, was tasted.
“I like it as much as ordinary coffee” — “No, I couldn’t say so, but if one doesn’t have any coffee beans, then it serves very well” — “It has a slightly different taste, a sweet aftertaste, but it’s not unpleasant” — “I think it tastes fresh and good.”
Dandelion coffee cost half the price of real coffee and was not subject to rationing, so you could drink as much of it as you desired (though cream became so scarce that it became necessary to either drink it black or use ersatz cream made from milk, eggs, sugar, and potato flour). Aftenposten also reported that a new factory for dandelion coffee would soon be up and running: “It will require deliveries of 4000 kg of dandelion roots every day. That’s a lot of coffee. And there will be many fewer dandelions in the fields.”
Assuming that you had no money but plenty of time, you could make dandelion coffee at home. The ladies’ magazine Urd detailed the method in its April 1918 issue:
Autumn is the best time to harvest the roots, preferably when the ground has been dampened after rain. …after rinsing, brush or scrape the roots and dry them with a rough cloth. If they are to be used as ersatz coffee, they should be cut into small pieces, dried, roasted, and ground. When making “coffee” from dandelion alone, only half a teaspoon of the powder suffices for each cup of water.
In their attempts to convince Norwegians of the benefits of dandelion, the press neglected to mention that the plant is a diuretic. While dandelion coffee was said to be “an excellent remedy for insomnia,” that effect may have been dampened—no pun intended—by the necessity of getting up to relieve oneself multiple times during the night. A friend who made dandelion coffee from scratch minced no words when I asked her about her experience: “I was up most of that night peeing and I got so little sleep that I needed a nap the next day.”
While the bitterness of dandelion roots usefully mimicked the taste of coffee, this characteristic was less than desirable in other forms of food. Urd recommended boiling the roots in two 15-minute stages in order to draw out the bitterness. Afterwards, they could pureed for use in bread and other baked goods; “in baking, one can save a great deal of flour by using dandelion mash.”
If you had enough wheat flour, you needed only to take equivalent weights of dandelion mash and flour, and follow the usual bread-baking procedure. Since dandelion mash did not rise well, this recipe required slightly more yeast than regular bread. In terms of taste, chervil was said to be an “excellent” addition.
Later, as wheat became scarcer, other flours took its place. One recipe for dandelion bread contains 500 grams of dandelion mash and 750 grams of rye flour. Despite its name, it was not actually bread-like. The instructions specify that the dough should be shaped into small flat rounds, which probably produced a cracker similar to rye crispbreads (knekkebrød). Another alternative bread contained graham flour, oat flour, and dandelion mash. This dough was to be mixed and kneaded “like regular bread” and then shaped into buns. Meanwhile, a recipe for dandelion fritters contained no grain flour at all. They consisted of dandelion mash with half a teaspoon of ground almonds, a teaspoon of sugar, and an egg. In her column for Urd, “Mary Housekeeper” recommended serving them with fruit compote, jam, or marmalade.
Summer is the season for making jam, but this task becomes very difficult without sugar. At least two books were published in the spring/summer of 1918 with recipes to preserve fruits and berries with as little sugar as possible. If you hadn’t scrupulously saved your sugar rations, however, you could derive sugar from dandelions. (You would probably also be well-served by no little ambition in the kitchen as well as a total lack of fear.) The well-known cook and author Henriette Schønberg-Erken provided her readers with the following recipe for a sugar substitute made of dandelion roots, calcium carbonate, and sulphuric acid:
Rinse and chop the roots. Boil until soft in as little water as possible. Then put it through a ricer. Bring it to the boil again and then empty it into a warm ceramic dish. For every kilo, add 20 grams of concentrated sulphuric acid. Let the mixture rest, covered with a ceramic or wooden lid, in a warm oven for a few hours. Then strain the juice through a jelly bag. Add powdered calcium carbonate until the juice stops fizzing. Let it rest overnight and then boil it down until it becomes a syrup. …Remember that the mixture must not come into contact with metal until the sulphuric acid is neutralised with the calcium carbonate.
Deriving sugar from dandelions sounded incredible, and so a curious journalist asked Professor Sophus Torup about the process. Torup confirmed that it would indeed work and that “not just dandelion roots but all roots—in fact, anything that contains starch—can be used to make sugar.” Yet while it was technically possible, Schønberg-Erken’s recipe does not seem to have experienced much popularity. As the journalist remarked, the process was “so difficult and burdensome that I do not dare to say that any sugar will come of it.”
While dandelions served their purpose during the war, they were abandoned as soon as real coffee, flour, and sugar became readily available again. Dandelion coffee made a brief comeback during World War II; as a flour substitute, however, it was superceded by fish flour made from dried cod. Yet despite major increases in food prices in Norway during the summer of 2022, the flower known here as “lion’s tooth” has not yet made it on to the menu. Hopefully a dandelion diet is not in our immediate future; but if it is, at least we will know exactly how to prepare them.
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If you’d like to read more about Norway during World War I, check out these links:
Dyrtidens mat (in Norwegian)