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Just stinging super wild fare

IT may be June but some recent days have been more like April-May, especially with forecasts of grass frost.

The cold coast of Greenland seems not so far, far away, as the old sea shanty has it, with chilling air and sudden icy rain bursts. But hopefully summer arrives at last.

It may seem late to consider plants from the wild for the table - a burgeoning foraging ritual of recent times - but fresh new growth continues to present its attractiveness.

A story about 'organic nettles' seen at a London farmers' market for £5 (€6.90) a kilo, got attention. Springtime, surely, for trendy bites! Recently I mentioned Alexanders thickening-like cabbages (especially in coastal places), which arrived from Egypt as a pot herb, shoots and bulbs being boiled to get rid of the aniseed. It fell out of favour.

But the boiled leaves of young nettles seem to have had a revival: some posh restaurants, especially in London, are serving them and a well-known actress is recommending nettles as the new 'super food', with lots of vitamin C and iron.

But April-May is really the time of nettle consciousness (in a normal weather year) and it was so in times past when there was even a Nettle Festival, Feile na Neantog, ushering in Bealtaine at the beginning of May. And, culinary matters aside, it was an event boldly celebrated.

Mr and Mrs Hall, in one of their topographical books on Ireland in the 1840s, mentioned Nettlemas Night when "boys paraded the streets with large bunches of nettles, stinging their playmates and occasionally bestowing a sly touch upon strangers…." Merry maidens were also involved availing themselves of the privilege of playfully stinging their beaux. The festival marked a harvesting time when this nutritious wild fare could be more easily prepared before the plant went into flower and the stalks became coarse and hoary.

Nettle soup is an old tradition when rural grandmothers insisted on preparing it for children to "cleanse the blood". Youngsters were terrified of being stung and it took time to convince them that cooking destroyed the formic acid.

There are many ancient recipes, along with more contemporary ones from media chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anton Mosimann, including our own St Columba of Iona of the royal house of O'Neill. His one goes: take young stinging nettles five inches high, a handful for each person; boil, drain, chop, return to pot with water and milk, stir in oatmeal until thick.

Another from early times: bunch of sorrel, bunch of watercress, bunch dandelion leaves, two bunches of young nettles, chives, cup of barley flour, salt to taste. In contrast, Mosimann's nettle nouvelle is a blending of nettle puree with fromage blanc, new potatoes and nutmeg.

Ancient herbalists such as Culpeper and Gerard extolled the health benefits of the plant, the former writing of its effectiveness in "provoking urine, expelling gravel and killing worms in children". This man was not without mischief saying nettles may be found "by feeling, even on the darkest night".

The plant is of course of vital importance to butterflies, especially the caterpillars of small tortoiseshell, comma and peacock, so nurture a stinging corner in the garden, both for man and insect.

Sunday Independent