Country Matters: Stinging nettles, cool super-food
The 17th century herbalist and apothecary Nicholas Culpeper, son of a clergyman, advised those readers of his treatises seeking fresh pick-me-ups, particularly stinging nettles, to "find them by feeling, even on the darkest night".
"They are so well known," he wrote, "they need no description."
No protective gloves were mentioned. One has to admire his sense of humour.
Nettle-tops eaten in the spring (into summer) "consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man…that winter had left behind," enthused Nicholas, who pointed out the benefits to be gained by eating these stinging greens, from "provoking women's courses" and fighting various bodily poisons to stings of "venomous creatures and the biting of mad dogs."
Since ancient Greece, nettles were universally popular as a cure-all for human discomforts. In these times, such weeds of waysides and wild gardens have returned as a cool super-food, sought by keen foragers, by times on sale at market stalls with organic greens and appearing on menus of trendy restaurants.
One hundred years ago, "tender nettles to cleanse the blood" was a well-known London street vendors' cry.. In Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott disturbs the old gardener at Loch Leven who is raising nettles under cloches.
Early spring has slipped by and most nettle clumps will have begun to flower but search (wearing gloves!) for the young shoots continuing to grow - the flowered heads are unsuitable for culinary purposes.
Leaf tops are lightly boiled like spinach and are usually combined with other ingredients to make interesting soups. Using the leaves solely might not be an attractive proposition, especially for youngsters. I knew a grandmother serving up bowls of green liquid to sceptical children insisting it was good for them and that the stinging formic acid (which they feared) had been neutralised by boiling!
The great interest in almost all things organic, or considered to be so, and that lovely description, super-foods, has embraced nettles, and not as a curious trend but the source of vitamins and minerals, protein and iron as much as are broccoli and blueberries.
Recipes may be unearthed from St Columba on Iona to the present. The Irish holy man is credited with this interesting combination: boil a handful of young stinging nettles, four to five inches high, drain, chop and return to the pot with milk and water, sprinkling in oatmeal and stirring until thick.
Here is another attributed to Early Christian Ireland: For "Botchan Neantog" get a bunch of sorrel, bunch of watercress, bunch of dandelion leaves, two bunches of young nettle leaves, some chives, one cup of barley flour, one tsp salt. And another, more contemporary: puree boiled nettle leaves in a blender, melt butter in a pot and stir in flour, salt and pepper to taste. Then beat in a pint of hot milk, simmer and stir, adding the puree and mixing thoroughly.
London chef Anton Mosimann blends his puree with fromage blanc, new potatoes and nutmeg - an interesting ingredient. The 'nutmeg of consolation' perhaps?