These woods don’t offer exceptional scope for foraging, but it’s become one of my personal annual rituals to make nettle soup every spring using leaves harvested fresh from the undergrowth.
If you’ve never tried or even heard of nettle soup, it might seem an unlikely dish. Nettles are more renowned for their stinging capabilities than their culinary value, but they do make a very nutritious and palatable broth. In fact, they are one of the most historically useful wild plants to be found in the British Isles, having been employed in the past to make herbal remedies, dyes, beer and even rope.
They are at their best just now. The new shoots and leaves which have emerged in the past few weeks are still tender, and relatively easy to digest. Later on, they become stringy, fibrous and a much chewier prospect. In the past, they would’ve been a precious source of vitamins at this time of year, which was traditionally known as “The Hungry Gap” – the period when the previous year’s stored harvest was all but depleted, and the new season’s crops were still far from ready. It was a time when foraging for wild sources of food would’ve been a matter of survival rather than just curiosity. Knowing which plants and fungi were edible and nutritious – as well as tasty – was essential.
I choose nettles for harvest which are growing well away from any paths, and therefore – hopefully – where dogs have pissed. I wash them well before using them in any case, but I figure such selectivity increases the chances of them being uncontaminated! I’ve handled so many nettles over the years that the tips of my thumbs and forefingers appear to be immune to the stings now. I’ve heard it said that nettle stings used to be (and perhaps still are) reckoned to prevent arthritis, but I’d advise wearing gloves all the same! The sting is neutralised by cooking, so your mouth, gullet and stomach will be unaffected. It’s possible to add other vegetables to your soup – e.g. carrots, leeks – but I like to keep mine simple.
2 or 3 medium sized all-purpose potatoes;
3 or 4 good handfuls of nettle leaves and/or tops, washed and roughly chopped;
2 pints of vegetable stock;
Butter or oil for frying;
Salt and pepper to taste.
- Slice the onion finely, and fry gently in the butter or oil in a saucepan until softened.
- Cut the potatoes into small cubes – I prefer not to peel them, just scrub them well.
- Add the potatoes and stock to the pan and bring to the boil.
- Reduce to simmer and cook until the potatoes are almost soft.
- Add the nettles and cook for a further five minutes.
- Season to taste. Liquidise if you prefer your soups this way. Adding a little cream or milk is also an option.
- Nettle soup is particularly great served with homemade wholemeal bread.