The stinging qualities of the nettle needs no introduction, but its gastronomic qualities are as overlooked as those of our greatest wild mushrooms. The first and tastiest specimens of the year are now beginning to emerge…
By this time every year, virtually all of us will have had at least one painful brush with a nettle. Passing a hand or foot across this barbed weed is at the very least unpleasant, so not surprisingly most people therefore balk at the idea of putting the same in their mouths.
Yet there are good reasons for doing so. The Romans whipped rheumatics with fresh bunches to stimulate circulation. And on a nutritional level, their foliage is undoubtedly full of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. This is because their deep roots drag up nutrients from far underground and the hated stings are merely ways of protecting the rich foliage from predators. Indeed, experts often describe nettles as ‘spinach substitutes’.
Now to a supermarket ‘baby leaf’ generation this may seem ridiculous and certainly eating mouthfuls of raw nettles is inadvisable. No sooner than the barbs hit the pan, however, the acid sting is neutralised. After this the greenery becomes positively nutty and flavoursome. It works particularly well as a thick soup – especially in conjunction with wild mushrooms – or try it as a mousse with cream and goats cheese. Unfortunately older nettles become decidedly laxative, so flash fry and freeze young tips for later use.