When I tell people that I enjoy foraging for food, I am often asked if I have ever made Nettle Soup. It seems to embody the very idea of free food from the countryside. But the answer has always been no. Last year I fully intended to make some, but left it too late - for the best results you need to gather the nettles when the leaves are young and tender - about now is great.
This year the unseasonably sunny weather kicked me into action, so Rob and I set off this afternoon, armed with gardening gloves, to forage for some nettles.
They're not exactly hard to find! Once you start looking in any hedgerow or field boundary you soon find plenty - I think they're so common that I often don't even notice them. We chose a patch that wasn't too close to any well-used footpaths (hoping to avoid nettles fertilised by dog-wee!) and got picking.
The gloves were, of course, invaluable. Had I thought ahead I would have also worn boots but set off in sandals, only to find my ankle got stung. But one sting from all those nettle-tops didn't seem too much of a sacrifice (although I had forgotten how much it hurts!)
When picking nettles, you need to pinch out the tops, so you end up collecting the 4 smallest leaves from each plant. It's immensely satisfying, as foraging usually is, but this time with the added bonus of being able to feel that in some tiny way you're keeping the spread of these pesky plants in check!
We soon managed to gather the requisite half-carrier-bag-full needed, and rinsed them well in cold water (wearing washing-up gloves this time!). They're really quite pretty leaves when you look closely at them - but it's those fine hairs that cause the stings. Luckily boiling water neutralises them within seconds.
I found many recipes online, but ended up making up the soup using what I had, including a handful of the wild garlic leaves collected yesterday, making it a well-foraged soup! This is what I did:
Chop one large onion and one large potato (unpeeled) and gently soften in a large pan (use olive oil or butter).
Add half a pan full of stock (I used chicken) and bring to the boil, simmering until the potatoes are tender.
Add the nettles (half a bag full) and a large handful of wild garlic (or saute a chopped clove of garlic with the onion and potato at the beginning of the process), stir, cover and bring back to the boil for 3 or 4 minutes. The leaves will darken a little and wilt down, much as spinach does.
Blend the soup until smooth (I used a stick-blender), and stand back and admire the vibrant green colour! Sample and season with salt and pepper as needed; I found that it needed quite a lot of both.
When I reheat it I will stir a little cream through each bowl just before serving, to make it a little more luxurious. I have sampled some already of course... the nettles don't have a strong flavour, it just tastes quite 'vegetabley' to me, but delicious all the same - and virtuously healthy too!
Whilst foraging, we were passed by a couple out on a walk who were intrigued by what we were doing. I think foraging for food appears rather eccentric to those who don't do it..! The woman said that she had once had Nettle Beer... could this be our next project?!