The inspiration for this drink...
I first went to India in my twenties and quickly got addicted to the wafting scent of freshly made chai served on street corners and eateries. I remember the coffee too – sweet and weak - it was a constant disappointment to my strong coffee loving boyfriend at the time! This is somewhere between the two; a sweetly spiced cleaver coffee drink, with a little caffeine and all the warming and uplifting benefits that spices bring.
As a forager I love to use locally growing weeds, find out all about this plant and where it grows in my blog about how to make cleaver coffee.
Sweetly Spiced Cleaver Chai recipe
Made from locally harvested, roasted and ground cleaver seeds and blended with Indian spices. A perfect pick-me-up in the afternoon or a sweet way to end a meal.
- 2-3 tbsp roasted and ground cleaver seeds
- 8 cardamom pods, crushed
- 6 cloves, crushed
- ½ a large cinnamon stick
- 4 cm piece of fresh ginger, chopped
- 600 ml water
- 200 ml milk of your choice, or water
- Honey to taste (optional)
Place the ground cleaver seeds and spices in a small saucepan and add the water and milk. You could add the milk later, if you prefer or not use at all.
Bring to the boil and simmer over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and leave to sit for a further 5 minutes, strain and sweeten to taste.
Want to learn more?
Over the centuries many different grains and plants have been used as an alternative or substitute for coffee. In the 2nd World War acorns and chicory were used. Roasted rye, brown rice and malted barley have also been used across the world.
These are Cleaver seeds, Goosegrass (Galium aparine), sticky grass or sticky willy - as we called it as children. Cleavers makes the best alternative to coffee I know.
Related to coffee, when roasted their flavour resembles coffee’s taste and smell. Cleavers even contain some caffeine. Each plant can produce hundreds of seeds, anything from 300 to over a thousand. Giving you a bounty to forage if you have the patience. Oh, and a little perspective, by the time you’ve finished reading this page, you could have collected enough seeds to make a mug of cleaver coffee.
Where can you find cleavers?
Cleavers can be found in fields, crop fields and hedgerows. They prefer nutrient-rich soil, can survive dry conditions well and can grow from just above sea level up to 1,500 ft. A straggly, creeping plant that can grow more than 1 metre long. Each seed is covered in tiny hooks that attached themselves to, pretty much anything, except plastic.
When to harvest cleaver seeds?
The seeds start from summer; though these aren’t the ones you want to harvest. Instead, wait until they turn from green to brown in late summer or autumn. You can keep an eye out for them throughout winter too.
What are the benefits of cleaver seeds?
Cleaver seeds are a mild laxative, stimulate the lymphatic system and are good for treating urinary irritations. A word of warning though, don’t try and bite on dried cleaver seeds, they are very, very hard.
How to Make Cleaver Coffee
For committed coffee drinkers, this is the best wild substitute that you can find in the hedgerows. It may not impress expresso lovers though! However, it suits desserts faultlessly and can be used to make a coffee-flavoured drink with a mild caffeine hit.
Makes 90 g (9 tbsp)
100 g Cleaver seeds (picked off the stems)
Pick the dry, brown seeds and discard as much of the stems as possible. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C, place the seeds on a baking tray and dry roast for 45 minutes to an hour. The more seeds you have, the longer the roasting will take. An aroma reminiscent of weak coffee will be released when they are ready, and they’ll turn a little darker, though don’t let them burn.
Remove the seeds from the oven, allow to cool a little before grinding, or store and grind on demand. You’ll need a good, strong seed or coffee grinder to break those hard seeds into a ground powder. Stores well for up to a year.
Want to learn more and make some cleaver coffee?
Also, have you seen my dandelion coffee recipe? Dandelion roots and cleaver seeds are two wild edible plants I teach on my late summer, autumn and winter foraging courses. which you're welcome to join For my best recipes you may want to check out my foraging members options too.
Ever thought of using your weeds to made a tasty coffee-substitute?
The History of Dandelions
Like many common weeds, dandelions are often vastly under-estimated, under-used and misunderstood. Despite being cultivated in parts of Britain, France and North America for over 150 years (1), they are still often considered just a 'weed' that needs eradicating. Similarly, coffee-substitutes are easily linked to events like the Second World War, when people resorted to roasting grains, acorns, cleaver seeds and dandelions roots instead of or to bulk up rationed coffee. Though in the 1900s it was also sold as an inexpensive coffee.
Dandelion roots can be used to create a caffeine-free coffee substitute, but dandelion coffee is also a drink in its own right. Made from roasting and grinding the roots, it gives off a pleasant aroma and has a slightly bitter after-taste, reminiscent of coffee or dark chocolate. Here I share step-by-step how to make homemade dandelion coffee.
1. Identify Dandelion Roots
How well do you know your dandelion roots? This might sound obvious to you, though I often see dandelions being misidentified. To complicate things (but only slightly), there are around 250 different types of dandelion. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has toothed leaves, a hollow, branch-less stem with a milky sap and yellow flowers. Thankfully, this is also the most common dandelion.
2. When and How to Dig Up Dandelion Roots
The tooth-shaped leaves of spring and summer mark where I needed to dig. The roots of dandelions are long and thin and can be up to 25 cm in depth, not that I'm measuring. It is easy to snap them near the top if you don't carefully dig around the root, and even then, I normally have a few that mostly remain in the ground. So take your time. The slightly older ones are said to be the best, 1 or 2 years of age are a good size and not too bitter. If you’re digging on your own patch you might get to know your dandelions this intimately.
I find flower beds and vegetable patches the easiest to dig from, as the soil tends to be looser there. I've also made the mistake of accepting the offer of digging up a lot of dandelion roots from a friend's grass lawn. Yes, I did rid them of their dandelion roots, but I also left them with a lot of muddy holes. I wasn't invited back. In the UK you need permission from the landowner to dig up roots, though there’s always people who’ll happily let you do their weeding for you.
Autumn and Winter is the perfect time for digging up the roots. In the colder, darker months, the plant's energy is concentrated in the roots, making them sweeter and more nutritious. I like to time my digging with the waning moon too, when the pull towards the earth and those roots is strongest.
3. Preparing the Roots for Making Coffee
The roots need to washed well, then pat them dry and leave them in a warm place for 2-3 days to dry further. This will reduce the amount of time they need in the oven and concentrate the flavours. During this drying process the weight of the roots will halve. Next, finely chop the roots and preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C and dry roast the roots for 30-40 minutes (turning halfway through). The roots are ready when they are dark brown. Leave to cool and store in a clean jar. Grind for drinks and other recipes as needed.
Roasted Dandelion Root Coffee Recipe
Makes 50 g (7-8 tbsp)
280 g freshly dug up dandelion roots (tops removed)
Dig up the roots, wash well and leave to dry in a well-ventilated area for 2-3 days (this will reduce their weight by about half). Chop small and place on a large baking tray. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C and dry roast the roots for 30-40 minutes (turning halfway through). The roots are ready when they are dark brown. Leave to cool and store in a clean jar. Grind for drinks and other recipes as needed.
To make 1 mug of roasted dandelion coffee, grind 1 and 1/2 tbsp roots and place in a small pan with 350 ml water. Bring to a simmer and allow to gently bubble for 10 minutes. Strain and drink (or flavour with milk and sweetener and drink).
I teach about seasonal, edible weeds on my monthly foraging courses, with lots of tips for recipes, identification and hands on learning. Follow me on instagram or facebook to see regular posts and information, or sign up to the newsletter, oh and do tag me if you try any making this, I'd love to hear from you! @rachellambertwildfoodforaging
References and Credits
- Irving, M. (2009) The Forager Handbook - A guide to the edible plants of Britain
Top photo by: Jamie Mills, the rest by Rachel Lambert (copyright).
Last month a few hardy foragers (actually it was a lovely bright, wintery day) joined me at Cape Cornwall for a wild food walk with tasters. At a welcomed break we sat down with a large flask of 'Wild Spiced Cleaver Coffee'.
The drink went down well - sweet, hot and naturally containing some caffeine, everyone was pleasantly surprised! There are many variations in making this coffee substitute, this is one alfresco style on the beach!
Here's my indoor version of how to make cleaver coffee.