Living in a vegetarian household (at the moment) might reduce some delicious seasonal cooking options for the omnivorous, sometimes vengeful gardener (see pictures) but has the advantage that one is being forced to try new things to come out of one’s comfort zone. Yet, I like experimenting in garden and kitchen anyway and am not restricted by antipathies or allergies, at least in the latter department.
Recently and very timely it occurred to me that I might increase my nutritional input by fried or baked dahlia tubers. I got the hint from Roger Phillips, whom I owe besides many other things the recipe for nettle beer and boiled Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), which I have also turned into lasagne or used its seeds in bread. Roger Phillips (in his very enlightening correspondence with Leslie Land) sounded sceptical though about eating dahlia tubers, suggesting that if they were that tasty the world would already know by now. Perhaps, but the obvious is sometimes the most difficult thing to find out or to spread. Just think of tomatoes which took Europeans generations to accept as edible and to place in the kitchen garden? Moreover, involuntary trials with mice (who the human animals so much rely upon to further their own health) have convincingly proven that dahlia tubers might indeed be delicious.
Dahlia flowers I have already eaten now and then; either in salads or whole when playing practical jokes on gardening friends (where I could risk it!). Disguised as premature spontaneous deadheading, if you like. They taste a little like nasturtiums (to me). Eating flowers looks a little like cannibalism in the vegetal department but it already visually embellishes a dish immensely. I presume the whole thing is a question of interpretation, tradition, and nowadays to a large extent fashion. (Just think of the extremely expansive daisy or violet flowers which have sprung up in posh inner city health shops.)
I do not mean to suggest that you should always eat your enemies (which might be a precarious task), but the consumption of dahlias was perhaps helped by the fact that they are not my favourite flowers, not the least because this over-bred beauty requires so much work in continental Europe. I make concessions to the single flowered varieties with decent leaves. In any case, you have to stake them, to dig them out at the end of the season and store them properly, and this not always with the best of success. Moreover, in many German gardens they are being used like parading Prussian soldiers in immaculate rows above barest soil underneath as if on manoeuvres against the mock-enemy tea roses in similar barrack-forecourt-border arrangements. And this autumn worship of digging out the tubers long before the first frosts have struck in order to “tidy up” the garden looks similarly regimented to me. As if to keep up with the Joneses. Does it occur to other people, too, that the “dislike” of innocent (?) flowers has something to do with the arrangements in which one first or regularly encounters them? Unlearning is occasionally more difficult than learning.
What would you think of this show piece of a Dahlia collection at Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge as (imagined) part of a kitchen garden?
I have often planted dahlias into the vegetable garden for aesthetic or salad reasons without going the final steps: treating them like annuals and digging them out as allotment gardeners would dig out their potatoes. This is easier than one thinks since they reach a substantial size already in one season when grown from seed. So why store them with the often doubtful result? You won’t, of course, keep the authentic variety in this way.
Yet, with a catholic taste it is at least impossible to devour the Bishop’s Children proper…, but only unauthorized poor relations like the ones on the garden table (see picture):
The next picture shows the stage before the dahlia tubers were prepared for the oven, accompanied by similarly freshly picked apples, carrots, garlic, sweet chestnuts, Japonica quinces, and a bought onion.
Slowly cooked in olive oil and cider, some seasoning with herbs, salt, pepper, lemon and with grated cheese on top for the final minutes, it resulted in a rather pleasant experimental supper. I won’t make a meal out of it, yet…
All in all not a bad discovery, and after I have waited some days to find out how I might react, I feel it is now possible to invite some friends for a dahlia tuber meal, particularly (as a kind of compensation) those whose dahlia flowers I had mischievously devoured earlier in the year. And now that I am more assured, I can prepare them as the main vegetable without hiding them behind their more established fellow ingredients.
[NOTE: the author doesn’t accept any liability….]