YOUNG nettles are everywhere at present , wild and free and bursting with the vitamins, minerals and trace elements that we need after that long punishing winter we’ve all endured. Now that Spring is in here young growth is leaping from the ground in both urban areas and throughout the countryside. Nettles irk the gardener but it’s worth remembering that they are a powerhouse of nutrients so let’s just relish our weeds. Our grannies and granddads and ancestors all knew the value of incorporating iron rich nettles (more iron than either kale or asparagus) into your diet. In fact they have been a part of Irish diet for more than 6,000 years, ever since the first farmers cleared the forests.
There was an old saying, that one should eat four feeds of nettles during the month of May to purify the blood and keep away the rheumatics.
There are many references to these plants in ancient manuscripts. Monks added them to their pottages and knew their value as a blood cleanser. Alexanders ramps and nettles are some of the earliest wild foods in the season; and now that foraging has become super cool, many chefs have also rediscovered wild foods and have been incorporating these ingredients into their menus in a myriad of creative ways. We ourselves have seen the increase in demand for organic nettles at our stall at the Farmers’ Market in Midleton.
Many will or of course know that the common nettle stings (Urtica dioica), so wear long sleeves and long trousers when you are picking — you’ll also need gloves to protect your hands. If you do get stung, rub the affected area with a dock leaf (Rumex obtusifolius), because the sap will relieve the pain. Mother Nature has arranged that the antidote usually grows close by.
What our grandparents deduced is now scientifically proven. Herbalists confirm that as well as iron, nettles contain formic acid, histamine, ammonia, silicic acid and potassium. Some of these compounds are known to alleviate rheumatism, sciatica and other pains. They lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels, increase the haemoglobin in the blood, improve circulation and purify the system — so our ancestors weren’t far wrong.
Nettles are also a well-known and highly regarded diuretic which helps to eliminate toxins from the kidneys. They also aid digestion and are anecdotally used to eliminate worms.
We use them in myriad ways; out in the garden Eileen O’Donovan makes a ‘stinky’ nettle plant tea, which is splendid nitrogen-rich plant food.
In the kitchen we discover more and more ways to enjoy nettles. Needless to say we don’t eat them raw — they lose their sting as soon as they are cooked or even wilted in the pan with other greens. Stinging nettle soup is delicious as it is, simply made with an onion and potato base or in conjunction with other greens, such as watercress, sorrel or chick weed.
Blanch the nettles well in boiling water and refresh then purée or add to spinach and ricotta as a filling for cappelletti or tortellini.
They also work well on pizza, see Nettle and Ricotta Pizza recipe in my March 24 column (also available online), and even though they are added raw they lose their sting in the oven.
It’s also so worth making nettle beer, it’ll be ready to drink within three or four weeks and it's properly delicious, surprising as it may seem Nettle pesto is also super delicious.
Scrub the potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Meanwhile, chop the young nettle tops and cook in the milk for approx. 20 minutes.
As soon as the potatoes are cooked, drain and peel immediately while they are still hot. Mash until soft and free of lumps.
Pour in the boiling milk add the nettles and a good lump of butter, beat until soft and creamy. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Serve hot with a lump of butter melting into the centre.
We love this soup, which includes leeks as well as onion and potato to give an extra silkiness to the texture and flavour to the soup. We use tender young nettle tops in Spring.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. When it foams, add the chopped onion and potato, toss them in the butter until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with a paper lid (to trap the steam) and the saucepan lid, and sweat over a gentle heat for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft but not coloured.
Discard the paper lid, add the stock and boil until the vegetables are just cooked, add the nettle leaves and simmer uncovered for just a few minutes. Do not overcook or the vegetables will lose their flavour.
Add the milk and liquidise. Taste and correct seasoning if necessary. Serve hot.
Makes 12 litres
We are huge fans of Roger Philips and found this recipe in his Wild Food book. It made delicious beer — sweet, fizzy, perfect for summertime. Unfortunately we bottled it before it had finished fermenting, and one night, the glass bottles exploded. Oh well, practice makes perfect!
Boil the nettles in the water for 10 minutes. Strain, and add the sugar and the cream of tartar. Heat and stir until dissolved. Remove from the heat and leave until tepid, then add the yeast and stir well. Cover with muslin and leave for a week.
Remove the scum and decant without disturbing the sediment. Bottle, cork and secure the top. Leave at room temperature for about 2 weeks or until starting to bubble, then drink within a few weeks.
Serves 8 (small plates)
The day before: put the chickpeas in a bowl and cover with at least double volume of cold water.
The next day: drain the chickpeas, cover with fresh water or stock (could be chicken or vegetable stock) bring to the boil and simmer for anything between 30 and 60 minutes depending on quality until fully cooked and soft.
Meanwhile make the nettle pesto.
When the chickpeas are cooked drain, add salt, freshly ground black pepper and extra virgin olive oil to taste.
To serve: reheat if necessary, correct seasoning. Spoon a couple of tablespoons onto a small plate, drizzle with nettle pesto.
Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and serve immediately with good bread.
Makes 2-3 x 200ml jars
Bring a large pot of water to the boil.
Blanch the nettle tops for 1 minute and refresh in cold water. Drain well.
Place the nettles, garlic, almonds, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor, whizz for a few seconds.
Add the olive oil and whizz again. Finally add the Parmesan and whizz for a few more seconds.
Store in sterilised jars covered in a layer of olive oil.
Food Photography with Shantanu Starick on Saturday, June 2, at Ballymaloe Cookery School. An opportunity to learn from one of the most foremost photographers, Shantanu Starick, a nomadic photographer, whose photographs capture the diversity of life across many continents. His food photography is incredibly evocative and beautifully styled. His book ‘Grown and Gathered’ is published by Pan McMillan. Participants are encouraged to bring their own photographic equipment if they wish. Alternatively, they may use their camera-phones. A delicious Ballymaloe Cookery School lunch is included, www.cookingisfun.ie / www.shantanustarick.com
Wild and Free: Want to make Sloe Gin in the Autumn? While you drive through the countryside for the next week or so, keep your eyes peeled. The black thorn which produces sloe berries in the Autumn is covered with white blossom at present so note where the trees are so you can pick the fruit in Autumn.
A brilliant discovery on the farmhouse cheese scene. Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese is made by a passionate cheese maker called Teresa Roche, near Loughrea in Co Galway. It’s a Swiss mountain appenzeller type made from the milk of their own herd of Holstein Friesian pedigree cows. The response has been hugely positive and Teresa is struggling to hold on to the cheese to age it as much as she’d like, but the six month old cheese is already delicious. Check out Sheridan’s and McCambridge’s in Galway, Fallon and Byrne in Dublin also on their website kylemorefarmhousecheese.com
Cor Cois Farraige for their annual concert Sunday, May 27, at 8pm, at Garryvoe Hotel, Garryvoe, Co Cork. Featuring the best of local singers, songwriters and musicians. All proceeds going to Irish charity Pieta House. Tickets €12 and available on the door, no booking required.