Friday, June 15, 2012


Burdock and potato cakes
(this is a still from the video that will be here once edited in about 10 days)

Burdock plant in its 2nd year of growth. Photo taken 15th June.
For general burdock information click here.

Burdock, burdock, burdock, what a wonderful plant you are, and yet I feel with all sincerity that I owe you a rather large apology. When years ago I read of your impressive size and flavour, of your abundance and ease to find, I sought you out, I found you without trouble all around, and dug up your roots. But in those early days of clamouring and clumsy wild food enthusiasm I was lazy and impatient, lacking in discrimination, and unaware of your full potential. Digging in stoney ground I only ever harvested an inch or two of your root, and most of that was more base of stem with all its debris of leaf die off rather than tender root. Even worse, I would find you in your second year of life, just putting forth central flowering stems, dig up that couple of inches of root, find it all woody and lacking in tender substance, and toss you dismissively on the ground. So let me thank you for allowing me a second, third, fourth, fifth and many more chances to get to know you, to make such an impressive suit from your huge and attractive leaves, to become a burdock man, and after years of friendship, have the opportunity to sing your praises to all who care to listen.

And of course to get into the true spirit of the activity, the most successful burdock root digging can only take place when you are suitably dressed........

Fun to make, and even more enjoyable to wear, or just carry, is a suit of burdock. The picture above (3rd from top) was taken at an event I was involved in a couple of years ago at Myatts Field near Brixton in London. I’m not exactly shy, but nor am I in any way loud and ebullient. That, coupled with the fact that I travelled with my suit on a hanger as I went to the place via the London underground – a place of strangers furiously avoiding eye contact by plugging into i-pads, handheld computer games, ebook readers or the traditional head burying newspaper – made it so incredibly surprising how engaged people became. From young kids, rebellious looking teenagers, smart looking business people, big muscular black men covered in gold chains to old and frail people, men and women, all sincerely wanted to know: “Was that a leaf suit I was carrying?” “Where are you going?” “What are you doing?” Never before nor since have I spoken to so many interested and smiling people on the London underground. Whether as catalysts for delightful and unexpected conversational encounters, through their calming presence that can help facilitate deep reflection, or through directly ingesting their vitality, plants are powerfully connecting: connecting to self, to others, to the earth.

Speaking of connection, indeed connecting so well it’s hard to disconnect them, brings me on to talk of the fascinating burs of burdock, and my second favourite burdock inspired suit: one made entirely from the green burs. Don’t I look fantastic ........itchtastic!

Alas, it's not me. Although I’d love to have the honour to be the famous Edinburg burry man, I’m not sure how you apply for the job, but am sure that I must be qualified (Actually I’m not as I wasn’t born in Queensferry. Damn!)

Held on the second Friday in August, the burry man’s day begins at 6am, as the 2-3 hour task of making the suit begins. As Richard Mabey describes it in his Flora Britanica:

“At 9am the Burry Man emerges into Queensferry High Street, carrying two staves bedecked with flowers. He walks slowly and awkwardly with his arms outstretched sideways, carrying the two staves, and two attendants, one on each side, help him to keep his balance by also holding on to the staves. Led by a boy ringing a bell, the Burry Man and his supporters begin their nine-hour perambulation of South Queensferry.
     The first stop is traditionally outside the Provost’s house, where the Burry Man receives a drink of whisky through a straw.
      Occasional offerings like this must keep him going throughout the day. At about 6 p.m., the Burry Man returns to the Town Hall, exhausted by his efforts and usually somewhat inebriated by his intake of neat whisky. Although it occurs only once a year, the task of being Burry Man is extremely demanding, requiring stamina, a strong bladder, an indifference to the discomfort caused by the more penetrative burs, and a conviction that this ancient custom should not die out.”

To read more about this fascinating custom follow the link by clicking here:

Although in this video I deliberately focus on the use of burdock stem hearts as food, the most traditional food use involves the roots. In this country, perhaps the most widely known use is in the delicious tonic drink dandelion and burdock. Here’s a recipe to toast the Burry Man with.

Dandelion and Burdock Beer
The drink admits of countless variations. Indeed, it can be made as a cordial, as a non-alcoholic fizzy drink, or as a beer or light mead. Additionally, the root ratios can be varied as can the use of fresh or dried material. This version that I made last year was particularly good.

100g fresh dandelion root (and a small handful of leaves, if you fancy)
50g dried and powdered dandelion root
200g fresh burdock roots
100g dried burdock root powder
5l of spring water
½ litre birch sap syrup
1 heaped tbsp black treacle
3 tbsp malt extract
juice and zest of 1 lemon
25g cream of tartar
15g root ginger
2 tsp Champagne or beer yeast.

Collect non-woody burdock roots from 1st year’s growth, and dandelion roots at any time. Clean thoroughly and then chop into small pieces. Dry and powder required amount, using the rest fresh (for greater medicinal effect). Place in a saucepan and boil roots in the water for 20 minutes. Add the birch sap syrup, malt extract, black treacle and cream of tartar, stirring to dissolve. Strain out roots, and allow to become lukewarm before squeezing in the lemon juice and sprinkling in the yeast. Transfer to a sterilized fermenting bucket and leave in a warm room or airing cupboard for 5-7 days, covered with a loose-fitting lid or cloth. Prime screw top or old Grolsch-type bottles by adding a teaspoon of sugar to each. Strain beer off sediment into bottles and leave for a week before opening. Serve chilled.

Roots can be fried, mashed, roasted, used as a flavouring
for home made noodles, as well as various other uses.
They are particularly good pickled. Click here for my recipe.

You can wash and peel them of course. I tend just to scrub clean
under running water and don't peel the.
In Japan the tender taproot of burdock is cultivated as a vegetable. Indeed, I love to cook it Asian style as in the dish below which is delicious and very simple to prepare (shown with deep fried seaweed).

Simply dig up roots at any time of the year when you can see the leaves above ground but when no central stems have appeared (in the South this can even be possible in Winter). So that's small to large plants in either their first or second year of growth. In the second year, before the stem forms, even if the main tap root is woody, there can often be secondary roots of sufficient size to be worth using. Ideally you'd just dig plants in their first year of growth but sometimes it can be hard to tell which stage the plant is at. If you do get woody parts, they can still be dried and roasted as part of a coffee style drink or dried and powdered.
    To cook as shown above, scrub and clean the tender roots (no need to peel) and cut into battons. Alternatively you can cut them like your mother's carrots, that is, into thinish rounds. However you decide to cut them, place in a pan with about 3/4 water and 1/4 soy sauce to just cover the roots. Bring to the boil and continue boiling until all the liquid has evapourated, being careful to stir continuously when when get to the point where most of the liquid has boiled off, as you don't want the roots to stick and burn. These are great as a side vegetable and are superb in stir-fries. Often I make huge quantities, freezing the cooked roots on trays in the freezer. A couple of times during the freezing process I agitate the roots so that they can freeze without sticking together once they're completely frozen. After that you can store them frozen in a bag and take a handful out to toss into a stir-fries or other dishes whenever you like.

Finally, on to the stem........
Note how quickly the peeled stems discolour. Handling the raw stem hearts can result in your hands getting stained brown for up to a week. To avoid that, wear kitchen gloves!
     In the South East of England good sized stems can usually be gathered from the middle of May until the end of June.
      The stems are really versatile in their usage and can be eated raw (especially good dipped in houmous), grated for potato and burdock cakes, dried and powdered for use as a flavouring in sweet or savoury dishes, boiled and tossed in lemon and butter, grated and incorporated into coleslaw or lacto-fermented, par-moiled then battered and deep-fried, cooked in syrup and incorporated into fruit crumbles, made into jam or candied. The flavour can also be infused into spirits or for flavouring vinegar.

When making the grated burdock stem and potato cakes in the video, I actually only ended up using about half the whole potato shown and only a third of the onion. Nevertheless the ratio of burdock to potato was still half and half. But exact measurments are not what it's all about for me. Just experiment and see what suits you best. Here's a basic recipe anyway.

2 medium potatoes, peeled and grated
burdock stem hearts, peeled and grated (equal weight as the potato)
1 small onion/1/3 large onion, grated.
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 large or 2 small eggs
2 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper to taste.

Place the grated burdock, potato and onion in a cloth to squeeze out the juices. Then combine and thoroughly mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Fry in olive oil for 3-5 minutes each side making sure there are no more than about 1 1/2 cm thick. The whole lot can be cooked in the pan at once and cut into portions when cooked, can be spooned in and gently patted down to shape them, or can be moulded in metal (or do it yoursef card) rings. Cook on medium heat in a heavy frying pan until golden brown on both sides.

And the sweet course......

Candied burdock stem hearts or, remembering what I said in the video, the uniquely flavoured syrup made as a byproduct of stem candying is wonderful incorporated into icecream or panna cotta!

To candy the stems peel and cut them into managable sizes (i.e that will fit in the pan). Weigh the same quantity of sugar. Place in a saucepan with the sugar and sufficient liquid to more than cover (water/syrup level should come to about 2-3 cm above the stems). You can add some fresh ginger and some vanilla extract if you like. Boil for 5-10 minutes. You will find that the sections towards the base of the stem are much firmer than the more flexible upper stem half. I usually save the firmer bottom parts for potato cakes and only the more tender parts for candying, but both can be used. If using hard and tender parts it will take 15-20 minutes or more to boil the harder parts to tenderness and only 5 minutes for the tender parts. You may want to separate and do them in to different pans, although even after 30 minutes of simmering the tender parts still hold together well so it's probably not necessary. In any case, in the first instance dont boil for more than 10 minutes (as they get boiled again later anyway). Leave in the syrup for 12-24 hours. After soaking strain the syrup off into a clean pan and bring to a simmer, reducing down by just over 3/4 of the original volume (leave and large firm stems in during the first reduction that aren't yet tender. Place all remaining stems into the hot syrup. Leave for 12-24 hours. Remove all stems and reduce the liquid down to just over 1/2 the original volume. Place stems in for 12-24 hours. Repeat again. Finally you should have the syrup reduced down to just over 1/4 of the original volume. Leave for a final 12-24 hour period. Note, it is very important during the final reduction that you don't over cook the syrup or the final product will remain sticky. If that happens, simply chop up the stems, add some pectin and make jam instead.
       Finally, strain off the final syrup and set aside for other uses. Place the stems on a non stick surface and dry at about 40 degrees celcius for about 10 hours in a food dehydrator. Alternatively dry in a low oven, solar dryer, on wire racks above a radiator or simply in a warm relatively undusty room.
Eat as sweets or use in cakes, buscuits, icecream, pana cotta etc etc etc............

Candying burdock stems after last syrup reduction.

Drying in a warm room for a week before covering with a tea towel and leaving for longer.

After a year left covered with a tea towel in the spare room.
 A final couple of questions? I 've not been paying sufficient attention to answer this one myself so perhaps you know? At the beginning of this article I mentioned about not sufficiently digging up all the root. Well perhaps that's not a bad thing. After all, it may be the case that new plants can grow from root off cuts. Do they? Also, I wonder; although burdock is a bienial plant, taking two years to grow, if one cuts out the central flowering stem in the second year will it continue growing for a third year to make up for it, putting a stem out then? I expect it might be so. Does anybody know the answer?
      Of course it is possible to havest the main central flowering stem AND leave the plant to flower and hence go on to produce seed for the next generation of plants. If when harvesting the main stem you don't cut right down to the base, as I did in the video, but instead leave the bottom 1-2 pairs of leaves attached to the main stem, then secondary flower stems will grow from where the leaf stem joins the main stem. That's probably best practice from a sustainability point of view.

Happy foraging!

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