Roadside stingers for a healthy soup course
The grandmother of children I knew a lifetime ago used to pluck young roadside nettles to make soup for them - to cleanse the blood, as she put it.
This was not favourably viewed by some who considered it closer to the culinary practices of travelling folk who regularly halted nearby and who, rumour had it, roasted hedgehogs beneath the embers of their camp fire.
You heard the meat was delicious.
Baking potatoes outdoors was totally acceptable, however, and, in their burnt-black skins, they made a delicious feast. All that was needed was salt. Much later I learned that the poet Robert Frost admitted this was the only meal he was capable of rustling up - a frank admission which belied his image of rustic self-sufficiency.
But nettles are a foraging rage these days, a cool ingredient in magazine recipes and on the menus of some trendy restaurants. Depending on where you live, they can be costly.
At a farmers' market in Notting Hill, London, they were on sale at £5 a kilo! The zealous 'farmer' declared that not only were the nettles 'organic', but they were also a 'super-food' and comparable to kale, broccoli, blueberries and such. Also, they couldn't be sourced in supermarkets, he emphasised.
At one time, almost anything that grew or swam could be found on London market stalls; among the vendors' cries of more than a century ago could be heard "nettles with tender shoots". The trade has now come full circle. Nettles beat spinach, cabbage and broccoli for vitamins and minerals, so they more than deserve their 'super' status. The new shoots have begun to appear so now is the time to get picking. Pluck only the tips, the first four to six leaves on each spear. By next month they will begin to get coarse and should not be eaten once they begin to flower.
The leaf tops are lightly boiled, like spinach, and may be combined with other ingredients. The granny who marshalled the hesitant children in order "to cleanse the blood" had to convince them they would not be stung as they lifted their spoons - boiling neutralised the formic acid; when the nettles dropped in, the sting was vanquished.
Making nettle soup is an old tradition and there is no shortage of recipes, from the ancients such as Culpeper and Gerard to contemporary sources. There is even an historic one from St Columba of Iona: pick young stinging nettles four to five inches high, a handful for each person; boil, drain, chop and return to pot with water and milk; sprinkle in oatmeal and stir until thick. That's pretty straightforward.
A contemporary recipe suggests the boiled leaves be pureed in a blender; melt butter in a pot and stir in flour, salt and pepper; beat in a pint of hot milk, simmer and stir, adding the puree. Some recipes include onion, leeks, celery, garlic and rice, with a small bunch of chives and yoghurt topping to finish.
Old Culpeper, an apothecary, listed some fascinating benefits from ingestion.
The plant was effective in "provoking urine, expelling gravel and killing worms in children," he held.
The man did not lack a sense of humour, telling his readers that nettles could be found "by feeling, even on the darkest night." Quite so. Don't forget those gloves.