I do not recommend donning marigolds mid dog walk and charging headlong into the hedgerows. Fellow walkers look suspicious; their dogs tilt their heads quizzically. But, the derision of man and beast is nothing compared to the sting. Yes you should wear plastic gloves. But you will still get stung. So be brave.
And, having cooked with them for the first time today I will be brave next time. No more will I feel ashamed by my incongruous use of marigolds. No more will I flinch from the sting. Not when the prize is a glut of nettles. They are great.
Foraging God, John Wright, in River Cottage Handbook: Hedgerows describes the taste of nettles as being akin to a mild cabbage or spinach. He’s spot on. And, once you’ve washed them thoroughly and evicted any creepy crawlies, you can use them just as you would do spinach. Simply wilt in a drop of boiling water for a few minutes and they’re ready … and now stingless, mercifully.
Nettle soup is the classic dish here, which is fine and all, but I’m after something a bit different. Hugh F-W makes a mean nettle Spanakopitta (so much cheaper than buying bags of fresh spinach out of season). And Sarah of the Garden Deli blog has a rather wonderful recipe for nettles and beans in her post In Praise of Nettles (thank you to her for the sound advice to avoid summer nettles which can give you the trots – wise words).
I’ve also experimented with a couple of my own recipes:
Out on limb here I grant you. But humour me.
- 100g caster sugar
- 300ml water
- Small bunch of nettle leaves
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
Put the caster sugar and 200ml of water in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Don’t be tempted to stir it or it will crystalise. Have patience. Once the sugar has gone, turn the heat up, bring to the boil and chuck in the nettles. You want to keep it bubbling at 101-102 degrees for 4-5 minutes.
Remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and the remaining water and blend. Next, chill for 1 hour and then pass the liquid through a sieve to remove the bits. You will be left with unpleasant, sickly sweet, green pond water and you will curse my name. But have faith.
- A large (gloved) handful of nettle leaves
- 1 heaped tbsp chopped walnuts
- 1 small clove of garlic
- A small handful (gloved or ungloved, your choice) of pecorino
- Rapeseed oil
Whizz everything up in a mixer, drizzling in the oil as you go until you have the right consistency then season. It’s great on pizza, in which case keep it quite dry. It’s also perfect for pasta, in which case make it runnier.
Enough for 2.