Urtica (Stinging Nettles). It is the sting of the nettle that stays with us from childhood that perhaps renders this plant so unattractive. Yet, nutritionally, it is even richer in minerals and vitamins than spinach and broccoli and is one of the most useful of all edible plants. In World War Two, in the countryside of Great Britain hundred of tons of nettles were gathered annually for the extraction of chlorophyl and of dyes for camouflage nets. I can remember joining groups of women picking nettles and bagging them up for collection. But that is N. Europe and here, nettles are quite rare. So, imagine my surprise and excitement when out walking with friends, to discover a patch of nettles on some waste ground near a stream! This being January, we plunged in with boots and gloves and picked a bagful. Now, all sorts of delicious recipes are available and I’m thinking that I will start a tub of nettles, both for their delicate young tops and, as they get leggy and tough, to submerge them in water for a couple of weeks and use as a very nutritious feed for pot plants, roses and figs. So, perhaps, no more need to buy the nettle granules which I’ve previously used so successfully to stimulate growth!
There are many species of Stinging Nettles in the genus Urtica. Urtica dioica is the most common nettle in northern Europe, a robust, to 1.5 metre perennial. The plant is covered with pin-sharp, hollow hairs, which break off easily on contact. Male and female flowers, are borne in racemes to 10 cm long, on separate plants. It grows in woods, on waste and cultivated land, often near habitations. They love a phosphate rich soil – which is in abundance near settlements (dunghills, earth privy). In fact, one of the ways to determine whether a site has been occupied in the past is to look for Stinging Nettles.
When we get stung by nettles, it releases histamine and formic acid, irritating the skin and causing inflammation, ‘nettle -like rash’. Strangely enough a cure for this ‘nettle rash’ is to rub fresh nettle juice on the spot. Herbalists use nettle juice, both internally and externally, in cases where a ‘nettle-like rash’ is caused by an allergy. Nettle juice and tea is useful during hayfever season, to reduce the effects (running eyes, stuffed-up nose) caused by the allergic reaction to pollen. The Romans introduced a variety of nettles, (Urtica pilulifera) native to southern Europe, into the U.K. This plant has similar properties to Urtica dioica. Nettles contains tannins, which when applied externally cause the edge of the wound to shrink towards one another. The leaves of the Stinging Nettle concentrate iron (when it is grown on an iron rich soil), and can help with Anaemia by using fresh leaves made into a soup. The high Vitamin C content of the plant, helps the iron to be absorbed. Nettles were used as fodder for cattle; because it stimulates the flow of milk, nursing mothers could also benefit by drinking nettle tea. It is an astringent, diuretic, tonic herb that controls bleeding, clears toxins, and slightly reduces blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
When I was a child in the late 1940’s, I would go on holiday to Morecombe and one of our outings was to travel a few miles south to Heysham, then a small village. As we walked up the main cobbled street we would find several housewives outside their cottages selling their home-made Nettle Beer by the glass or bottle – what a treat on a warm sunny day!
Ingredients: 2 gallons of cold water, 1 bucket of Nettle tops, 3 handfuls Dandelion leaves, 3 handfuls of Cleavers/Goosegrass (Galium aparine), 2 ozs fresh bruised ginger root, 2 cups brown sugar, 1 slice of toasted brown bread, 1 ozs fresh yeast, 3 tablespoons cream of tartar or 9 teaspoons of lemon juice.
Instructions: Add 2 gallons of cold water to a large pan. Add Nettles, Dandelions and Goose Grass. Bruise ginger and add to pan. Bring to the boil and simmer 40 minutes, then strain into a pail and add 2 cups of brown sugar. When the water cools to luke warm crumble the yeast into a dish and mix with a little water and a teaspoon of sugar to a paste, then spread on toast and place on top of the beer. Put the pail in a warm corner and allow to sit overnight, then strain through muslin and add cream of tartar or lemon juice. Bottle and seal tightly. You can drink pretty much immediately or leave to mature till the summer.
Ingredients: For the Gnocchi: 600 g floury potatoes, cut into even-sized pieces; 150 g washed nettle tops; 2 egg yolks; salt & pepper; 120 g plain flour. For the sauce: 75 g butter; 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced; 12 sage leaves, finely shredded; 50 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese; a handful of nuts (walnut, pecan or cob) roughly cut.
Boil the potatoes until tender, drain and mash till smooth. Bring 1 cm of water in a pan to the boil, add nettle tops and cook for 5 minutes, then quickly cool with cold running water. Tip into a sieve and squeeze out all the liquid. Chop finely in a food processor, then stir into the potatoes. Add egg yolks and season well. Add most of the flour and mix together, using sufficient flour to hold the mixture together but not too much that the mixture becomes heavy. It should not be too sticky. Break off a piece, roll into a ball and drop into boiling water to test. If after a few minutes it floats to the top without losing its shape, then do not add more flour. To shape the rest, take a handful of mixture and roll into a sausage shape on a floured board. Cut the sausage into 2 cm pieces, then shape each piece into an oval shape by rolling between floured hands. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, drop half the gnocchi (about 16) into the pan and cook until they have all floated to the surface, then lift out with a slotted spoon on to a hot plate lined with kitchen paper. Leave to cool for about 20 seconds. Repeat with second half.
While the Gnocchi is cooking, put the butter, garlic and sage in a small pan and fry gently for 2 minutes, Add chopped nuts. Serve Gnocchi on individual plates with the flavoured butter (olive oil can be used in place of butter). Serve immediately. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese if desired.
Alternative: Serve with a simple tomato sauce. Cooked Gnocchi can be lightly fried to give a crunchy texture.
Ingredients: 1 litre stock; 2 wild leeks (or one garden leek); 3 medium potatoes; 1 onion; garlic to taste; 80 g of nettle tops; olive oil for frying.
Chop onion, potatoes, leeks and garlic. Fry on a low heat for 10 mins. Add the chicken stock. Let it all simmer for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked. Add the nettle tops and simmer for another 5 minutes. Liquidise. This soup has a lovely bright green colour.
Baked Nettle Puree with Cheese Sauce
Ingredients: 4 large eggs; 350 g of nettle tops; cheese sauce; grated cheese.
Bring a pan of lightly salted water to the boil and put in the eggs, Cook them for 5 – 8 minutes depending on your liking. Hold them under the cold water tap and peel them. Place them in hot water till nettle puree is ready. Wash the nettle tops. Pour a little water into the pan to just cover the bottom. Cook the nettles for 5 minutes, drain and force out as much water as possible. Puree the nettles and transfer them to a buttered heatproof dish . Place the eggs, cut in half, on top of the nettles. Pour the cheese sauce (bechamel sauce with cheese) over the eggs and finish off with some grated cheese. Place under the grill just long enough for the cheese to brown a little.
Lentil and Nettle Soup
Ingredients: 100 g of puy lentils; 1.2 litre of stock; 1 small onion; 1.5 tablespoons of olive oil; 1 clove of garlic; 100 g of nettle tops; salt and pepper; 50 g of chopped mixed herbs (sorrel, parsley, chervil, tarragon, lovage and thyme); juice of 1/2 lemon; 150 ml of yoghurt or buttermilk.
Wash the lentils and pick over carefully, removing any small stones. Put them in a large pan with the stock. Bring to the boil and simmer until they are soft, approximately 45 minutes. Peel and chop the onion. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onion until soft and golden. Half way through the frying, add the chopped garlic. Wash the nettles, and add them to the cooked lentils. Cook the mixture for another 5 minutes till the nettles have softened. Add the onion, garlic and mixed herbs. Blend the soup till smooth. Stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and the yoghurt or buttermilk.
Bibliography: Alton & James – Medical Herbalists – Urtica dioica; Deni Bown – RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs; Collins – Mediterranean Wild Flowers; Web – Wikipedia – Urtica dioica; A Modern Herbal – Maude Grieve’s 1930 recipe