Good Food Blog
The big stingPosted at 11:51AM, 15 April 2009 by Toby Travis - Food blogger
Will you celebrate Be Nice to Nettles week this year? I'm guessing not. This curious event aimed to raise the status of the nettle from 'troublesome weed' to recession-busting source of free medicine, food and clothing. No doubt this is a noble and worthwhile cause, although I can't help feeling it's going to be an uphill task to reintroduce this hedgerow hooligan to polite society. Perhaps nettles need to start showing a bit of nice if they want nice in return.
Yet many wild-food fans and enthusiast foragers will embrace the return of the nettle this spring. The emergence of the first young shoots over the past few weeks marks the beginning of another season of scavenging happily for edible roots, leaves, berries and 'shrooms. Nettles, like brambles, are particularly valuable for the urban forager, thriving as they do among the contaminated, bottle-strewn verges of city paths and roads.
I can't help feeling it's going to be an uphill task to reintroduce this hedgerow hooligan to polite society.
At the weekend I noticed a burly man crouching in the undergrowth on the side of the disused railway line near where I live. Normally, this would make me walk faster and assume a fixed stare straight ahead. As I got closer however it became clear he was picking nettle tops with his bare hands, displaying a physical stoicism and culinary spirit of adventure which were both equally impressive. I returned later with full protective clothing, yellow marigolds and a pair of long-handled scissors to harvest a bag of the hairy leaves, avoiding those near stumps or posts where dogs were most likely to have paid their respects.
The obvious thing to make with my haul was nettle soup . Most recipes suggested more or less the same method: sautéing onions and potato in butter until soft, adding a generous pile of washed nettle leaves along with boiling stock or water, simmering until the tatties are soft and pureeing along with cream and seasoning. Perhaps also a scraping of nutmeg. You end up with a viridescent soup that tastes like the colour green - earthy, slightly tangy, outrageously healthy. A bit like a gutsy, uncouth potato and watercress soup. A final swirl of cream and scattering of chives transforms it into a frugal gourmet masterpiece.
Writing in 1699, the scholar and gardener John Evelyn thought that young tops of nettles were eaten only by the 'frugal Italians and French', for whom 'every Hedge affords a Salad.' Evelyn felt the English should follow their example, not only for health reasons but also because he believed that eating salads made men's conversations 'pleasant and agreeable', in contrast to the rowdy banter of the average beef-munching Brit. In his view, nettles and other green stuff were a civilising influence, they helped make us rational and polite. Perhaps Be Nice to Nettles week should rebrand itself Be Nice, Eat Nettles.