I felt a little foolish when I realized I had on a t-shirt and washing up gloves, leaving much of my arms bare, and I also had bare feet. I was worried that everything the nettles touched might take on the sting. So I checked the internet. All the information about the sting says it comes from the stinging hairs attached to the leaf but nothing says they will or wont attach to taps or utensils or or my camera or babies. I also wondered if all the seeds would be carried by the wind when I took the branches outside and seed in my pot plants.
Despite my paranoia, it was only after preparing the nettles that I looked up the internet to find out about remedies for stings. Many are found around the house. Rosemary, dock, yarrow and sage leaves can help. Folk remedies for the relief of sting from a nettle include mud, saliva, or baking soda, oil and onions. Even nettle juice can take away the sting of nettles. My mum says they used to use blue bags (the little bags that used to make the laundry white) for stings. Fortunately I had no stings to remedy. But my search did get me intrigued about the history and culture of the nettle.
History of Nettles
Nettles have long been part of human history. There are quite a few varieties so I don't know which ones we have in Australia. Though often feared and hated as a bothersome weed, it seems there are few medical problems they can’t fix. Nettles can make hair glossy; ease eczema; treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems, scurvy, worms, and pain; be sniffed to stop a nosebleed; be used as a gargle for throat and mouth infections; reduce blood pressure; drunk as a muscle relaxant during child birth; and act as an antidote to venomous stings from animals. Nettles are said to taste a little like spinach – but have twice as much iron – (but you will find some who find they tastes like an Irish sweater) and have been traditionally cooked in soup, beer, tea, pudding and other dishes.
There are reports of the use of a nettle infusion in ancient Egypt. Roman soldiers are said to have taken their own nettles to Britain to treat tired and painful legs on long marches by urtification – or the practice of flogging with the fresh nettle plant – to stimulate circulation in the cold and wet climate. Hippocrates and his supporters had remedies using nettles.
Not only do nettles have medicinal and culinary uses but they make a fine cloth or twine. The earliest sign of nettles is the discovery in Denmark of burial shrouds dating back to the Bronze Age (3000-2000 BC). The plant has been used as a source of green dye. During World War I the German army used nettles as a substitute for cotton and for making soldiers’ uniforms. In World War II the British Government collected 100 tonnes of nettles to use for green dye for camouflage.
Nettles in Folklore
Bruce Burnett says that “the common stinging nettle has long been used as a protective herb. A vase of freshly cut nettles under a sickbed is supposed to help the patient recover from whatever is ailing him or her. Nettles sprinkled around the house will ward off evil. Nettles tossed on to a fire will avert danger and carried by hand will fend off ghosts. When carried with yarrow, nettles will bestow courage. In ancient Ireland, nettles were known as “The Devil’s Apron.” In Southern England they were known as “the Naughty Man’s Plaything”, where the Naughty Man referred to the Devil.
In Norse mythology the god of thunder is often represented by nettles and burning them on the fire or carrying them in your pocket (depending on which website you read) will protect you from lightning. In Denmark the sting of the nettle was supposed to ward off sorcery. Folklore also tells us that nettles will enhance fertility in men, pulling up a nettle by the roots while reciting the names of a sick person and their family would to cure a fever, and to dream of nettles is an omen of stringent circumstances and disobedient children or servants.
Rheumatics had nettles added to their bedding as a cure. If you wanted to keep rheumatism away (for prevention is better than cure) an Irish custom was to drink nettle soup three times in May starting on the first of the month. It was the responsibility of young children to collect nettles and there are accounts of them chasing each other with the leaves. Ouch!
An English rhyme advises “Tender-handed, stroke a nettle, / And it stings you for your pains. / Grasp it like a man of mettle, / And it soft as silk remains.” Curiously, 17th century herbalist and apothecary, Nicholas Culpeper is reputed to have said 'Nettles may be found by feeling for them in the darkest night'. Yann Lovelock records a few other sayings about nettles in his Vegetable Book:
- He that handles a nettles tenderly is soonest stung.
- It is better to be stung by a nettle than pricked by a rose.
- If thy wad drink nettles in March / And eat muggings (mugwort) in May / Sae mony braw maidens / Wad go to the clay.
I think the last means that eating nettles in Spring would prevent the deaths of beautiful girls. Although according to folklore that Colin Spencer refers to in The Heretics Feast, it might be the deaths of gorgeous maidens feeding the nettles, given the belief in Denmark that nettles grow from the shedding of innocent blood. He points out that nettles are a sign of human habitation because they thrive on the toxic wastes of living creatures. It is said that in the Scottish Highlands, crofts abandoned after the Highland Clearances are full of nettles.
Wikipedia tells us that Milarepa, the great Tibetan ascetic and saint, was reputed to have survived his decades of solitary meditation by subsisting on nothing but nettles; his hair and skin turned green and he lived to the age of 83. He is known as the Green god.
Nettles in Literature
Nettles are referred to by some of the giants of the literary canon. In the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Princess and the Eleven Swans (also known as The Wild Swans), the coats the princess made to save her brothers were woven from nettles. Pepys wrote in his diary of having eaten ‘...some nettle porridge, which was very good’. And Shakespeare has Hotspur say in Henry IV (1:II:3) “out of this nettle (danger) we grasp this flower (safety)”, which seems to be the origin of the saying to grasp the nettle, meaning to face up to or take on a problem.
Nettles and the English
Herbal Legacy says that “the English poet, Campbell” (though I can’t find his full name) complained of little attention being paid to nettles in England – “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth.” Though it seems some were aware of the benefits of nettles. English poet, John Byrom, in 1728 wrote to his wife in Manchester, “I am fain to keep to my bed all day for this disorder, which, when I stir, troubles me; I am got to sack whey, nettle broth &c”
Today the English seem to have a fine appreciation for nettles. An annual Stinging Nettle Eating Championship is a popular event in Dorset. Contestants attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible. Whoever strips and eats the most stinging nettle leaves in a fixed time is the winner. The competition dates back to 1986, when two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about who was responsible for controlling the weed. England also had a Be Nice to Nettles Week each year.
English band the Arctic Monkeys have a song called The Nettles. Stephen Nettles (fl. 1595-1647) was an English clergyman and controversialist from Shropshire. Possibly the most famous Nettles in England is John Nettles who stars as the detective in Midsomer Murders and gives murderers a sting of another kind.
Nettles can be used in a variety of recipes, such as polenta and pesto but the most common seems to be nettle soup (also known as "Brændnældesuppe" in Danish, "Nässelsoppa" in Swedish and "Nokkoskeitto" in Finnish). AOF helpfully advised me on handling the nettles and suggested I look at Lucy’s Nettle Soup recipe. While I do not have the elegant simplicity of Lucy, I love her cooking and turned to see what she had done.
It took me a few days to approach the challenge. By then, the nettles needed using or they would be heading for the bin. The bulk of the work seemed to be in picking the nettle leaves off the stalks, which took quite some time. AOF’s nettles were older and I am not sure if you would need to do this work with younger nettles. I had to clear lots of room on the sink for the work. On one side of the sink were a tangle of nettles, in the sink I dropped the leaves in the sink and the stalks in my large roasting dish on the other side. Midway through, Sylvia needed a feed. Poor little blog orphan!
Once the nettles were ready for cooking, the soup was quick and easy. I realized that my pasta insert for my stockpot was a good way to blanch the nettles with minimum handling. It didn't seem to produce a lot of nettles for my troubles but I guess that is the way of greens when wilted. I changed the recipe a bit, adding stock for more flavour, throwing in some of Sylvia’s baby puree of potato, asparagus and zucchini, and using soy milk rather than cream. I wrote out my version of the recipe below.
It made a thin velvety green soup, which Lucy described as grassy. I was pleasantly surprised at how good it tasted. Dinner was punctuated by questions like ‘so what do you think?’ and ‘can you taste the nettles?’ E is not normally a fan of thin soups but loved this one. We had it for a few nights and I enjoyed it for lunches too. I just couldn’t be sure how much I could taste the nettles and how much was just the silverbeet. Nevertheless I hope this is not my only culinary brush with the stinging nettle.
Other Nettle Recipes:
- Nettle Pesto – Real Epicure
- Nettle Soup – Chocolate and Zucchini
- Nettle Temptation – Tofu for Two
- Nettle Tortilla – Confessions of a Food Nazi
- Rice with Nettles – Israeli Kitchen
- Stinging Nettle Fritters – Palachinka
- Stinging Nettle Pate – Small Footprint Family
For more information on nettles:
I am sending this to Haalo of Cook (Almost) Anything … At Least Once who is hosting the fourth anniversary of Weekend Herb Blogging. This is a great blog event to focus on vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers in cooking. It was started by Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen and is now coordinated wonderfully by Haalo.
Nettle and Silverbeet Soup
Adapted from Nourish Me
Serves 6-8 (ie a lot)
- 1 carrier bag of nettles
- 2 tbsp margarine
- 2 small onions , chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 4 kipfler potatoes, chopped
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 1 litre water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 large bunch of silverbeet (chard), roughly chopped
- Puree of 1 potato, ½ bunch asparagus, 1 zucchini (optional)
- ½ cup soy milk (or other milk)
Firstly, wearing rubber gloves, carefully strip the nettles from the stalks, trying to avoid skin contact. Dunk in boiling water for about 30 minutes, then run under cold water. Fry onions in margarine for about 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except soy milk, bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for about 12 minutes or until the potato is soft. Add soy milk and blend to a smooth grassy green puree.
On the Stereo
Nite Flights: The Walker Brothers