Sssh! It's been a mild winter so far at Pig Row. Sssh! Don't tell anyone. It's been the mildest early winter we have had from sometime and with the solstice behind us and days getting longer, our fingers, legs and eyes are firmly crossed that the snows that hit us in March of last year don't appear again. These snows really messed up our seed planting and it took weeks for the ground to warm up again. We're not a stranger to snow on our hillside and certainly when it blasts, it blasts as you can see in the film at the bottom of this post. We are overdue a harsh winter. So, sssh! It's been so mild that we have literally just lifted our dahlias from last summer, we thought we did this late last year but boy are we pushing the envelope here. Yet, the dahlias are whole, no rot or squishy bits. The only downside was actually finding them, much of the top growth had broken away in winds from a few weeks back and it was literally pot luck, and a planting diary, that helped us identify where they all where.
Lifting dahlias is one of those small winter jobs. It tends to be done after the first frost has blasted the top growth black. All the tools you require are a garden fork, some wellies, some gloves (more for the cold than the earth) and a pair of secateurs.
You dig the dahlia tubers out. Shake off any lose earth and cut off any dried foliage with your secateurs. Then store the tubers somewhere undercover to dry off. After a week of being undercover, remove any dry earth still on the tubers. We store our dahlia tubers in trays with spent compost from growbags from that year, covering the tuber to half of its depth. We don't water. We keep them warm by placing them under a work bench with some hessian sack over the top, fleece will do, so will newspaper. We check them every other week for signs of rot or growth. We pot them back up in late March, early April. A nice side note here is that dahlia tubers are edible, dahlia tubers predate their cousin, the potato or sweet potato in our country. The petals are edible and can be used in salads. The tuber, once eaten, is described as a mix between coffee and mud. A bitter flavour that blasts the tongue like those first frosts blast the dahlia foliage. What isn't widely known is that you can extract a sweet flavouring from the tubers called dacopa. When added to hot or cold water it becomes a sweet like syrup that works well in ice cream, coffee, tea and with chocolate. The tubers are also rich with the starch inulin, though the body does not absorb it, this starch can be converted it into fructose (Laevulose) and is suitable for diabetics. Up to the first world war an industry built up around this to create a type of molasses from dahlia tubers. Inulin is also reportedly a forerunner of insulin. It has also been used in the control of epilepsy and during the Great War reportedly became a boon medicine; though there is little concrete evidence out, that we could find, to support this. However, please note there are arguments that state the dahlia has no medicinal benefits, and these are often fascinating stories about how the Dahlia from the Aztecs onwards has become mythologised. However, Pig Row isn't here to cook drugs up in our kitchen, this is not The Good Life meets Breaking Bad. We're going to look quickly at how to make the molasses, dacopa, in two distinct ways to create that mad, sweet syrup from the most unlikely of plants:
TUBER DACOPA (winter)
(1) Rinse clean, and salt your dahlia tubers.
(2) Roast them in an oven at 200c with a generous amount of butter and brown sugar until golden brown and soft. Use a knife as you would for boiling potatoes, if the knife skewers the tubers with no resistance they are cooked through.
(3) Blitz the whole lot in a food processor into a creamy paste.
(4) Take a tub of vanilla ice cream and fold in the dahlia paste, then place back in the freezer.
PETAL DACOPA (summer)
(1) Add two cups of cold water to a pan, bring to the boil.
(2) Add a cup of dried dahlia petals to the boiling water and turn down the heat.
(3) The petals need to simmer in the hot water for 30 to 45 minutes.
(4) Pour the mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl. This will remove the petals and anything else that may be lurking there.
(5) You will have a brown to green liquid to drink. Add honey for taste. Lots of it.
The latter dacopa extract is our least favourite, and often rather bitter but until around the mid 1990s, you could find dacopa in many health food shops as an alternative to coffee. It doesn't taste like coffee though and it isn't surprising that you won't find it in any coffee house today. In ice cream though it does bring something wonderful. Some dahlia tubers taste better than others and there is a school of thought that as the dahlia tubers mature in storage they become more nuttier and less bland. Similar to Jerusalem artichokes, another maligned root crop with wonderful flowers. It's not surprising that Aztecs loved dahlias as part of their diet and they have been largely forgotten as a food in favour of their flowers. However, you can have the best of both worlds. Some of the more culinary tastes, according to the web and seed merchants, can be found in such dahlias as Black Jack which is like asparagus, Fantastic is reputedly smokey and Buga München is caught somewhere between parsley and coriander. At Pig Row we're going to experiment more with these edible dahlias in 2017, so stay tuned. Let's hope they are a tasty crop though we doubt we'll give up much space to them unless the flowers are fantastic. In the meantime, have a lovely New Year and let's hope that winter doesn't do this....