10 April 2009

Lion's teeth

Yes, those flowers I teased you all with in yesterday's post were blossoms on an old pear tree. They also resemble the flowers on our plum trees. The apple trees here haven't bloomed yet, but they are getting ready to. A lot of trees out around the vineyard are sporting white flowers these days, but I don't know how many of them will actually bear fruit of some kind. I plan to keep my eye on certain ones to see.

Today's flowers are ones nobody who has a lawn will have a hard time identifying. They are called pissenlits in French, and yes, that means what it looks like it means. It means "pee in the bed." Pissenlits can also be called dents-de-lion — "lion's teeth" — but I've almost never heard anybody use that name for them.

I always wondered why dandelions were called pissenlits in French. From a gardening show on TV the other day, I learned that the dandelion root can be used as a diuretic in homeopathic medicine. So this explains that, as we say in French — ceci explique cela.

When I just looked up the word in the Robert dictionary, I learned a new expression. If you say about someone « il mange les pissenlits par la racine » — he's eating dandelion roots — it means he is « mort et enterré » — dead and buried. Compare our expression: He's pushing up daisies.

So you have to be careful about eating dandelion roots before you go to bed at night — not because you might die but because you don't want to wet the bed. But do you know that you can also eat dandelion leaves? Maybe everybody knows that by now. The woman who sold us our house here in Saint-Aignan said her husband used to gather fresh dandelion leaves early in the spring to eat them as a salad.

On that same gardening show I watched a few days ago, I learned that dandelion leaves are good to eat only before flowers appear on the plant. After the pissenlit flowers, the leaves get too tough. So it's obviously too late to pick any now. Maybe next year. It seems there are several species of dandelions, and some are better to eat than others. For me, it would be a question of trial and error.

I think I remember seeing dandelion greens in the produce departments of supermarkets in California. Maybe it was only at Whole Foods. I can't remember ever eating them, but I might have.

The Larousse Gastronomique doesn't say much about dandelions except that they are edible. They must not be considered gastronomical. People mostly content themselves with picking wild ones in the meadows, the Larousse says, but some improved varieties are grown in gardens. Tender dandelion leaves are eaten raw, in salads. You can also cook them and serve them like spinach.

In her book Cuisine pour Toute l'Année, Monique Maine gives a recipe for Salade de Pissenlits aux Lardons: 8 oz. of dandelion leaves, 5 oz. of smoked pork lardons, one teaspoon of mustard, on tablespoon of vinegar, two tablespoons of oil, salt, and pepper. Make a vinaigrette of mustard, vinegar,oil, salt, and pepper in the bottom of a big salad bowl. Wash the dandelion leaves thoroughly and dry them. Fry up the lardons (or bacon). Put the dandelion greens and lardons in the salad bowl and toss with the vinaigrette. Serve immediately.

Dandelions here around Saint-Aignan don't seem to be the pest they are in American lawns. They flower in April and May, and then they appear to go dormant. Our yard and the neighbors' are not really lawns, anyway — they are described in France as prairies, which can be translated as "meadows." Whatever grows in or on them, grows. That includes cyclemen, primroses, violets, dandelions, grasses, clover, and a lot of other plants at different times of the year.

Back in the 1970s, one weekend my friend Cheryl and I drove from Champaign-Urbana over to the Amana Colony in Iowa. I think we boughta bottle of dandelion wine in a general store there. It was a traditional product made by the colony's residents. I don't remember if it was sweet or dry, but I bet it was sweet.


  1. Good morning. I am from the Amana Colonies and yes, that wine was very sweet. Funny, it is only made for the tourists. But, I grew up eating dandelion greens salad in early spring made with a cooked dressing with hard cooked eggs. Have not eaten in years, but it was wonderful. And yes, the leaves must be very young, before flowering. And, no dogs allowed near them :)

  2. Hi Susan, thanks for the comment. My friend and I were certainly tourists that weekend, so we bought the wine. I really enjoyed the Amana Colonies. At the time, I could speak a little German but now I've forgotten it all. At the Amana Colonies, I bought a wool blanket there that I still use more than 30 years later.

    Dandelion greens with hard cooked eggs sounds really good. And bacon, why not? I think you could substitute endive or curly endive (frisée in French) for the dandelions. There's an idea for lunch tomorrow.

    And you know, I also lived in Lakeland Florida.for a while in 1974.

  3. That picture of the single dandelion - it's stunning. I would like to paint it. My husband and I made dandelion wine once back in the day. Don't remember what it tasted like though.....

  4. Those dandelions make a lovely photo close up... it's funny how thinking of it as a weed (after realizing what it is a picture of) changes one's perspective :))

    Is the Cheryl of Champaign-Urbana the Cheryl who comments here and visits you? Long time friends!

    I was able to get a bottle of Argentinian Malbec yesterday! There was a 60% Merlot/40% Malbec from Chile, and then two full Malbec from Argentina, so I chose one of those. I got it at Trader Joe's... did you ever go to a Trader Joe's before moving away from the States?


  5. I had lunch in a restaurant in Paris called Pissenlits and the only English meaning I could think with was 'pee in the bed'. Thanks for the full explanation, Ken!


  6. Hi BettyAnn, was the restaurant the one in the 11th called Les Pissenlits par la Racine? I read good reviews about it.

  7. My grandmother cooked dandelions every spring, using a dressing of bacon, eggs, sugar (of course!), vinegar, and hardboiled eggs. Very very rich and delicious. The combination of maximum fat with maximum sugar is typically Pennsylvania Dutch. People do something similar with spinach but nowadays they cut back on the fat.

  8. Dandelions, like several other early spring emergers eg nettles, are traditionally prized for their tonic effect after a winter of eating preserved food.

    In strictly ecological terms the word prairie has a very specific meaning. It is an area of long grass generally rich with wildflowers, only lightly or occasionally grazed, and on damp soil. In practice the term usually also means the grazing is done by cattle and the soil is acidic. The English equivalent is 'meadow', as you say, and related expressions in French include prairie de fauche ('hay meadow') and pré ('grazing meadow'). That is how it is defined in my technical glossaries, but in my non-specialist dictionary, prairie is 'meadow, field, grassland'.

    Your lawns would be more akin to the strict ecological meaning of pelouses, areas of short grass, often traditionally grazed by sheep, and also rich in wildflowers, on dry soil. In practice the term also implies that the soil is calcareous, but it is no longer considered good practice to use the terms interchangeably. The closest equivalent in English is 'downland'.

    Proper lawn I assume is gazon, as that is what lawn seed is sold as. It is defined in my dictionary as 'grass, turf, sod, lawn, green'.

    I am aware that Keep off the Grass signs always use the word pelouse, but park keepers are not ecologists and are presumably using an old word more loosely. My non-specialist dictionary defines pelouse as 'lawn, green, public enclosure'.

    I suspect gazon is a much more modern word, but I could be wrong. Likewise, your neighbours are presumably using prairie to describe their lawns in a looser, more locally idiomatic way than an ecologist would.

  9. Goodness, Susan, just when I think all these different terms are cultural and linguistic, you tell me they are ecological and highly technical! I don't think our yard is une pelouse, which is basically grass and often describes, as you say, a public space. Grass is probably less than half of what grows out in our yard. In Am. Eng. we would call it a yard, not a lawn.

    Also in Am. Eng., gazon is called sod, I think. [Sorry for any confusion with British meanings of the term :^).] Grass growing on a chunk of earth is called sod or turf. That's not what we have. I think what we have is called prairie in French — prairie that gets mowed regularly in the growing season.

    I think you are talking about the English word "prairie"; I was using the French term, which probably has a slightly different meaning. What we have is certainly not comparable to "prairie" in the U.S. Middle West sense of the term.

    The term "downland" doesn't appear in the American Heritage dictionary. "Down" or "Downs" seems to be a specifically British term, describing areas of the British countryside. I think Down or Downs is used only in place names in America, because it sounds exotic.

    According to the Robert dictionary, the term gazon dates back to the 1100s or 1200s, though in earlier forms. It says: Fin XVIe; wason, 1178; gason, v. 1213; francique *waso « motte de terre garnie d'herbe » .

    I'm not an ecologist and I think it's interesting to see what the ecology jargon is, but most people don't know those terms in a technical sense. I was just trying to say that our yard is not lawn in the suburban sense of the term.

  10. Hi Carolyn, I wish I could have tasted those dandelion greens you grandmother cooked. I get hungry just thinking about them. One of my favorite "comfort foods" is spinach in a cream sauce with hard-boiled eggs. Your grandmother's dandelion greens sounds similar. If anything, I would cut back on the sugar, not the fat.

  11. Hello Ken, Your post brings back memories from the time that I was a little girl and my grandfather sent me out to gather pissenlits leaves for his rabbits. They just loved them and nibbled them delicately, like little gourmets.

    I once read that 'roquette' (which is very fashionable nowadays) is an 'urban' variety of pissenlits. Apparently it used to grow between the pavement, and people simple crushed them as they were considered as 'mauvaises herbes'. Today every fancy restaurant serves them in salads and side dishes. Martine

  12. When I was a little girl growing up around Nevers (Nievre), we used to pick up young dandelion leaves.
    My Mom would toss them in a vinaigrette with lardons (pancetta) and hard boiled eggs. With a fresh, crusty piece of bread, it was delicious. The dandelions they sell at Whole Foods are too long and not as delicate as the wild, small one we picked up. Plantain (I am not sure of the name in english) is also eaten in France.
    Pissenlit is high in calcium.

  13. Merci, Martine et Nadège, pour ces commentaires et renseignements.

    Martine, I can just see those rabbits nibbling delicately at the pissenlit leaves. I assume your family ate the rabbits when they were nicely fattened! It's an appropriate thought for me and Walt right now; we always eat the "Easter Bunny" on Easter weekend. We started the tradition back in the mid-1980s and I think we haven't missed a year yet. This Sunday, it will be Tagine de lapin au citron et aux amandes.

    That's very interesting about Br. Eng. rocket, Fr. roquette. I think in America we call it arugula, a word derived from Italian names for the plant. From what I see on Wikipedia, it is a plant that it now cultivated but has not been completely domesticated.

    Nadège, as for plantains, it's the same word in English, apparently, but the plant is also called ribwort. I don't know it at all, but now I want to try it. The scientific name is Plantago and the plants seem to grow all over the world.

    I can just taste dandelion leaves or frisée or endive with lardons and hard-boiled or poached eggs tossed in a good vinaigrette dressing. This discussion is making me so hungry!

  14. Hi Judy, yes, Cheryl and I were grad students together in Champaign in the early '70s. Of course, she was very young and precocious at the time; I was the normal age. We have stayed friends for going on 40 years. She has visited us in Saint-Aignan at least 3 times in 5 years. Your turn...

    Glad you found the Malbec. I can't help wondering how it compares with Loire Valley Côt. Did you look for wine from Cahors in SW France? Same grape.

    And did you hear from CHM re: séismes and châteaux médiévaux?

  15. Hi Ken. No, I was meaning how a French ecologist would use those terms when writing about French habitats.

    Thanks for clarifying about gazon – I've never been quite sure when the term applies.

    I was fairly sure 'downland' or 'downs' (the terms are interchangeable) was a British expression, and you have confirmed it.

    A French friend of ours refers to her champ, by which she means the half of her garden (about half an acre I guess) that is left unmown until after the wildflowers bloom, like a haymeadow.

    If I was writing a biodiversity report in French, I would call this part of her garden a prairie. If it was mown more regularly, the wildflowers would be a slightly different mix, and I would call it a pelouse.

    I think that the criteria that identify American prairie and French prairie in a broad ecological sense are pretty similar.

    Australians use the term yard or backyard the way you do too. I think I would just say the yard has grass or is grassed, and that would be understood as meaning grass plus whatever else comes up in it, regularly mowed. Lawn would be understood to generally be something more formal, cossetted and manicured (to use an Americanism :-). But the term lawn is also used quite broadly to mean any enclosed grassed area. Many Australians don't have enough water to waste it on maintaining a serious lawn, and in many places it would be illegal or frowned upon to do so.

  16. PS Rocket and dandelions are two different botanical families, so rocket is not a domesticated dandelion.

    My friend's champ always has the most beautiful delicate pink plantain flowering every year. I will point it out to you one day Ken.

  17. Thanks, Susan. I looked up rocket and saw that the Latin name is completely different from the name for dandelions. But I can see how rocket and dandelion greens are similar in shape and taste.

    I guess "prairie" in French has an everyday meaning that is not the same as the ecologist's technical definition. This whole idea of so strictly and narrowly defining terms goes against the trends in natural language.

    In California, it ought to be illegal to maintain lawns, given the current drought conditions. Drought is a constant feature of the California climate, but people keep growing grass and watering it. It's not sustainable.

    We never water our grass (or prairie, since it is only partly grass), just as they never water the vines out behind our place. In California, they irrigate the vineyards. Are they allowed to irrigate vineyards in Australia?

    The Collins-Robert French-English dictionary gives "meadow" as the translation of Fr. prairie. I don't know how the American term "prairie" would be translated. I suppose La Prairie or Les Prairies with capital letters would do it, or Les Grandes Plaines. It seems to me the word prairie has a totally different meaning in Am. Eng. compared to French.

    You certainly couldn't call our yard a prairie in American English. Neither is it a champ, even though we don't mow it until the primroses and cyclamen have nearly finished blooming. And it's not lawn. Lawns are artificial in most areas, and ours is completely natural as far as I know. In other words, I don't know if the cyclamen and primroses were planted by the previous owners, or if they just occur naturally. They are in all the neighbors' yards too.

    Gosh, I do go on...

  18. And I'm sure you would call our yard a pelouse too. That term is not so strictly defined in everyday language. I just means "grass."

  19. Solomon's judgment [??!!}: Call it a jardin!

  20. Who would have thought that a topic about dandelions would have sprouted (pun intended) so may conversations around the differences between gazons, pelouses, etc. Also rabbits.

    Yes this is the now infamous Cheryl. I'm thanking Ken for his politesse about my age, but I'm ok with that. At least I'm not pushing up daisies!

  21. CHM, thanks so much for the info about séismes and les châteaux médiévaux! I love getting that kind of information.

    Cheryl and Ken, the age thing made me chuckle, I must say :) I didn't find any Cahors wine among the French choices. I really wanted the wine to be French, but at least it's Malbec!

    Susan, thanks for clearing up the difference between pelouse and gazon... I always wondered about that. I was going to add that I had never heard the term downland, until you mentioned downs, which made me think of the name of some horse racing parks... right? "Something or other Downs"? And would this term champ be where the plural word champs (as in "~Elysées") comes from?


  22. CHM, un jardin! Now why didn't I think of that? You're a genius.

  23. In Ecology it's important to have these standardised terms, so that everyone is talking about the same thing. Habitats are generally classified by their vegetation and rather than list the half dozen key indicator species, as they are known, a single term to cover the whole assemblage (that's another technical ecology term) is used, like a sort of code or shorthand.

    Judy: Downs tend to be gently rolling countryside, with dry soil and short grass, and make excellent natural gallops, so yes, there are racecourses in England called 'Something or Other Downs' (eg Epsom Downs).

    The area where I lived in Australia is called the Darling Downs (but would have been wooded prairie if using European terminology; grassland, savanna and sclerophyll forest in Australian terms). A lot of it is now broad acre farming.

    Champ = 'field', so yes, the Champs Elysée are the Elysian Fields (from Greek legend).


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