They are everywhere. Peeking out beneath the hedgerow. Carpeting the slopes of the forest. The gardener’s terror and the forager’s treasure. For me, up until now nettles have been more infamous for their sting than for their taste. But all that was about to change.
On a quiet morning, armed with a terrifying neon-yellow specimen of rubber glove and a spacious plastic bag, I set out for Blackford Hill in pursuit of nettles. I worried that I might be too late; that the nettles would already be in flower (in which case you should not eat them).
But I’d barely reached the bottom of the hill before I saw them. Heaps and heaps of nettles, big and small, young and old, scattered everywhere. And none of them in flower. I filled up my bag and left, but I could have fed an army with the amount of nettles sat there on the slope, just waiting for takers. Waiting for you! Go get them. And remember to only take the top shoots, as they are the freshest and most delicious.
The taste is both strikingly familiar and novel. Somewhere between broccoli and spinach, it has a zesty tinge which sets it apart from either.
When you reach the end of the month and finances are a bit low, especially as a student, this natural pantry is a revelation. I bought a small yoghurt and a packet of scotch broth soup mix from Tesco’s at £1.50. The packet contains sliced carrot, swede, leek and onion and a sachet of barley – all you need to make a decent soup. And with the free nettles it came to £2 for a supper for 6. How’s that for your student budget?
150 g nettles
500 g scotch broth soup mix
1 clove of garlic
knob of butter
½ liter vegetable or chicken stock
1 teaspoon thyme (optional)
6 tablespoons natural yoghurt
a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley
1. Wearing thick rubber-gloves or similar, wash nettles thoroughly and squeeze dry. Remove any tough stalks.
2. Mince the garlic. Melt a knob of butter in a large pan and sauté the garlic along with the vegetable contents of the scotch broth mix for about 5 minutes.
3. Add barley and vegetable stock and bring to a rolling boil. Return the lid, turn down the heat and let the soup simmer for about 35 minutes, or until the barley is soft to the bite.
4. Meanwhile, chop the parsley and toast some bread.
5. Add nettles to the soup and let them cook for no more than 3-5 minutes. Remove the pan from the hob and blend it until smooth. Add more stock to match the consistency you like. Season with salt and pepper, and a hint of thyme, if you like.
6. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt and a sprinkling of parsley. Enjoy with a couple of slices of toasted bread on the side.