Sunday, 8 November 2009

Grasping the nettle (soup)

I was excited when AOF said she had nettles up for grabs (so to speak) and, once we found a time, headed over with Sylvia to drink peppermint tea, eat muffins and take away a bag of nettles. I was scared too. I haven’t seen nettles since I was warned away from them as a child. Deciding to cook with nettles feels a little brave and a little foolish.

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.

Nettle Soup


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:

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

18 comments:

  1. Great resource on nettles! I have had many cups of stinging nettle tea, but never heard of soup (nor have I encountered a "nettle in the raw," I think--I imagine I would have noticed the sting?). I love the advice to grab it like a "man" to avoid the sting--wonder why that would be so? Your soup looks great--I'm sure the addition of the other veggies created a very tasty broth.

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  2. hooray for your heralding of the humble nettle. Such a superfood and so underused and unloved. We have loads at the allotment and they're said to be a sign of fertile soil. I've used them occasionally in lasagne as a spinach substitute and keep thinking about drying my own leaves for tea but can't quite bring myself to do it because I know it tastes nasty. Perhaps when I establish a better mint patch I'll do it as these two make a perfect combination and pack a punch when it comes to minerals and healthy properties.

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  3. Love how green it is. I have never tried nettle soup. My mum always made us rub dock leaves on our nettle stings, can't say it helped much though. In England we have a few cheeses that are wrapped in nettles during the maturing stage and then eaten with the cheese later. I think Cornish Yarg is one of them. Interesting post. Didn't know half the stuff you mentioned, you certainly do your research!

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  4. Johanna, when I was a child I got stung by nettles all over my legs, so a few years ago I bought the dried leaves, I'm not so brave!! I used it for my hair as you mentioned and when it became common in Italian restaurant I made rice with it. Very interisting post, thanks Sabrina

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  5. They're ancient, I see from your research.

    Makes for fascinating reading with a cup of nettle tea over breakfast! I love your changes, too. Did you use the veggie scrap stock you've been making?

    Love your orange washing up gloves on the sink!

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  6. You are brave!

    Since being stung by them I have never thought of willingly bringing that upon myself!

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  7. All that folklore and legend had me scared off nettles. Hubby drinks the Duchy organic Nettle tea though so that was the closest I've come to serving it!

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  8. i love these long posts of yours (like the apple one). I learn so much. a couple years ago I made a delicious pasta dish with nettles from Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska (Pastisio). It was heavenly.

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  9. I have never tried nettle, believe it or not! So curious about the taste!

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  10. Johanna,
    I am so delighted to read such a postive post about the 'stinging nettle'. I tried it for the first time last year: as soup, as gnocchi, and even in a risotto. It is absolutly delicious, a flavour that I cannot describe, but know that I like very much. I have decided that it is one of my favourite greens. Thanks for putting it in the spotlight in one of your beautifully written posts.

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  11. Very interesting. I haven't eaten nettles, and I'm not even sure that I've seen them.

    (Love the giraffe soup cup too!)

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  12. thanks Ricki - apparently the theory is that you grasp the nettle and crush the 'hairs' so they can't sting you but I am not about to try it - I am curious to try some nettle tea now!

    Thanks Nic - I never thought I would envy someone their nettle patch - nettle lasagne sounds great - what about blanced nettles in a smoothie - now that would be an interesting green smoothie!

    Thanks Katie - the soup is amazingly green - in fact it was so green I was surprised how good it tastes (and that is from a lover of all things green!) - try it if you get the chance - and I will look out for nettle wrapped cheese - sounds very british

    Thanks Sabrina - that is interesting that the nettles are popular in Italian restaurants - now I want to be able to order nettle dishes when eating out - that would be novel!

    Thanks Lucy - those are E's choice of washing up glove - he is very particular :-) yes I used my vegie scrap stock - it is different each batch that I make and brings so much flavour into my meals

    Thanks Niki - there is a thin line between brave and foolish - but I can recommend you try nettles if you get the chance - if only for their amazing health benefits - I didn't talk much in this post about all the nutrients in them but they really are a superfood

    Thanks Lorraine - don't be scared of nettles - they are worth the challenge - wonder if you could use nettle tea in punch or soups?

    Thanks Maybelle's mum - glad you enjoy my blethering - I tend to get a bee in my bonnet about finding everything possible for my 'about' posts but have lots of fun - nettles and pasta sounds interesting - will look it up

    Thanks Anh - hope you get the chance to try them - am sure you would find them interesting

    Thanks MangoCheeks - am happy to promote the much maligned nettle - and would like to try cooking with it more - I was a little scared about tasting it by itself so would need more experiments to get a better feel for the taste

    Thanks Kalyn - I only have vague memories of nettles from when I lived in a country town as a child - not sure I would recognise them now

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  13. I enjoyed this post thoroughly. I'm an old fan of nettles. Put them in everything when they're fresh, and dry bunches of them for when they're out of season. The whole plant is worth eat, and the roots are the best part. The seeds are excellent adrenal stimulators as well.

    My late Dad told me that in Ireland of old times, goose girls would feed nettles to the geese. The trick is to grasp it firmly, then it won't sting, he said.

    But Dad had never grasped a nettle in his life. I've sustained many nettle stings and have even become used to it over the years - so I thought I'd try to grasp a nettle. No. Don't try it. It was painful. I'm sticking to cutting them with scissors and flipping them into my bag. At home, I also use kitchen gloves to process them.

    I harvest the common urtica dioca and urtica urens, but have seen another variety that grows as tall as 3 feet, has thick purplish leaves and is covered with really, really nasty prickles. That's rarer here. I've picked and cooked it, but have left it alone in recent years.

    Thanks for this post, it was great.

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  14. Hi, Johanna,

    I saw the link from your blog, and am so glad I followed it back. I thoroughly enjoyed your nettles post, as I'm an old friend of nettles myself. It's too early for them yet here in Israel, but I see mallows, so nettles can't be far behind.

    When they're in season, I put them into everything I cook and dry bunches for later in the year. The whole plant is edible, from the roots up. Even the seed has value as an adrenal stimulator.

    Your description of its taste as "green" is exactly the way I describe it. It's so high in iron and potassium and vitamin K and all those good things, it's just bursting with its own green flavor.

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  15. I love nettles, I just started to harvest them and prepared some fritters... I think I will try your soup soon!

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  16. Thanks Mimi - good to hear from one who has tried to grasp the nettle - sounds like it is best to leave that idea to folklore

    Thanks Graziana - enjoy your nettle harvest - seems there are so many ways to enjoy them

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  17. Yes, sorry I posted twice. Didn't realize that comments need moderation and a little time...but yes, grasping the nettle is best left as a metaphor.

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  18. nastyyy!!!!!!

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