Weather-wise it was the first day of spring, with warm sun and a brisk wind from the west. Many Lesser Celandine had flowered that morning and I was the first to see them, Primroses too and just a sign of Earthnut leaves coming up. I set off in search of fresh nettles. I have a regular spot for this at the lower edge of a field that gets the sun but is protected from the north and east by woodland. It's a good spot and I found that a colony of moles had set-up camp there since I last visited.
Its been such a mild winter in Cornwall this year that some of the nettles were re-forming on last years stalks, but there were also many new growths, tiny little leaves just poking through. Yummy. Nettle soup is just my favourite. Get it early in the spring because the plants toughen up quickly, and mature plants can be dangerous to eat as the 'stingers' don't break down as easily.
You can pick the tiny nettle heads quite easily with scissors, then lift them into a container, using the scissors as tongs. Cut them carefully, avoiding any discoloured leaves that might be 'frost caught'. They'll grow back again quickly and you can keep a harvest of fresh tops running into summer by regular soup collections.
Be careful where you gather the nettle tops. Avoid fields that get sprayed, roadsides or other chemical contamination. Take them from a wild place that isn't interfered with.
Having written that I put them in a plastic bag because I knew they would be home in minutes, simmering on the stove, but normally an open basket of some kind is better for gathering wild food. It's quite easy to pick the nettle tops and prepare them without being stung at all.
This recipe is from one of my favourite books - 'Wild Food' by Roger Phillips - a real treasure. I can never enthuse about this book enough. I have made this recipe about a dozen times and each one has a subtle difference based on the condition of the nettles. One time the formic acid was so active the soup was actually fizzy ! The fresh nettle soup has a deep and layered flavour, yet delicate. There's something intensely 'green' about it, you can feel it doing you good ( a serotonin hit) - but there's also a sort of 'gamey' flavour.
You've just got to try this one for yourselves.
All you need is about a bagful of nettle tops, about the size of a football, for four people. Also: A large Onion, garlic cloves to taste, 2 or 3 potatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper, a stock cube (chicken or vegetable) and some cream.
Firstly, prepare the nettles.
Wash and drain them. Go through them carefully separating stalk from fresh leaf. You can do this easily by picking them up by the main stalk, compressing the leaf stalks together and cutting across the tops with scissors.
Then chop up the potatoes, onion and garlic and fry them with a splash of olive oil and a pinch of butter (OK I like to get messy). When the onion starts to soften and the potato is forming a slight crust, chuck in the nettles, give them a quick whisk around with a spatula. Then add about a litre of boiled water and your stock cube. Mix it all up and bubble it for about 12 minutes, or until the potato is soft.
Into the liquidiser to soup it, then return to the pan to warm.
To serve, pour the soup into a bowl and add some cream. Whisk the cream around with the back of a spoon to make an interesting shape. Salt and pepper to taste.
Roger Phillips suggests serving this soup with butter-made croutons, but I prefer it without - only because I'm off bread.
Right now if you've done all that - you have just spontaneously self-medicated with wild food !
Nettles are a powerhouse of stuff we need after winter. They contain:
Iron and vitamin C. There are other minerals such as calcium, potassium and silicic acid in addition to flavonoids and phenols. German studies in 1999 show nettles to have a strong anti-inflammatory action. The leaves are rich in histamine - which can help with allergies. Also they contain serotonin - another very valuable compound for positive being. For this reason nettle is a useful tonic.
Nettle leaves are an astringent, a diuretic and a tonic, thanks in part to their high vitamin C and iron content. As an astringent they are used to decrease unwanted prostrate growth. As a tonic in beer, tea or soup they strengthen the whole body. The high salicic acid content in the plant can also help with eczema and the dried leaves make an easy poultice for some joint pains. Flogging the affected part with nettles was once called 'urtification' and was used for rheumatic joints. A remedy with its own hypodermic needles built-in !
The name 'nettle' comes from an old Scandinavian word 'Noedle' - meaning 'needle' in reference to the stinging parts - which underrates this useful plant. Nettles were once cultivated in Scandinavia and they were grown under glass in Scotland as 'early kale'.
Even the fibrous stems of nettles were used to weave a rough cloth. The young tops make the most delicious soup, nettle tea is good internally for rheumatic pains and externally as a balm against sunburn or as a cleansing hair rinse. A green dye can be made from the leaves and the seeds of this plant were once considered to have aphrodisiac qualities. Useful - or what !
A famous Irish dish called 'Brotchan Neanntog' contains nettles, but they become too tough after June for serious eating. 'Food for Free', a book by Richard Mabey even has a recipe for Nettle Haggis.
Gerard claims Nettles as a remedy against hemlock, bad mushrooms, quicksilver and Henbane, also against the bites of serpents and scorpions. An oil made from the leaves will take away the sting that "itself maketh".
Get the spring inside you - go make Nettle Soup.
About the Author
A FIRST WILD HERBAL by Simon Mitchell
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