Today I’ve had a nettle revelation. If you’ll allow me to mix my metaphors, stinging nettles are a bit of a thorny subject around the beginning of May. Today is Sting-Nettle Day as I’m in Sussex. But if I was in Devon it would be tomorrow. It’s also said one should never eat nettles after May Day as the Devil starts making shirts from them. Which is fine as Sting-Nettle Day is actually all about boys chasing girls and whacking their bare legs with bunches of nettles. However, on the first Sunday of May, (tomorrow) it’s Nick o’Thungs Day which is all about eating nettle pudding. So there are some sync issues going on.
Even without social distancing I had no desire to whack anyone with a bunch of nettles, so I thought I would go down the eating route. Having discovered a nettle patch above dog leg height on my last foraging outing, I nipped round the corner with a bag and a pair of disposable latex gloves. Then nipped back home for some scissors and started again. The Devil warning has some sanity to it, as the older the nettle gets, the more indigestible it becomes, so the best time to harvest nettles is March and April. I snipped a good bunch, avoiding ant clusters and cuckoo spit and then returned home, forefinger and thumb of my picking hand decidedly tingling.
The first thing I wanted to try was a nettle smoothie. The nettles would still be raw but pulverising them in a blender would apparently remove any sting. I snipped the leaves from the stalk, changing into my Marigolds half way through when the tingling became a proper stinging. Nettles smell thick and pungent; a bit fruity, a bit ‘green’, a bit ammonia-like. Then I did a thorough wash for bugs and dirt. I loaded up the blender with banana, berries, cucumber, soya milk and a good two handfuls of nettles, then set it spinning.
I likely left the mixer on a tad longer than necessary, but despite that, there was still a hint of tingle on my upper palate when I took my first sip. Probably entirely psychological, probably. The smoothie was utterly delicious. The nettle was quite subtle but definitely present. It does taste a bit weird though, and definitely not how I thought it would taste (despite regularly drinking commercial nettle tea). It’s a bit like eating dulse for the first time, or basil. The taste doesn’t quite fit with the image.
So while I continued to drink my breakfast, I made nettle crisps in a craven attempt to look hip. They were dead easy although wouldn’t mix very well with the seasoning, so I probably used a lot more oil than I should have. One turn, a lot of shrinkage, and 25 minutes later a load of shrivelled dragon wings came out of the oven and I got stuck in, for research purposes obviously. Again, really lovely, quite delicate and very moreish (although that could be the vast amounts of salt I used). The taste of nettle came through despite the seasoning and I will quite happily finish the lot off when my Space 1999 marathon starts shortly.
My thumbs and forefingers are still stinging. In Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora he tells of how to avoid being stung if you’re without gloves, the trick is to squeeze the nettles in big handfuls. Whereas a gardening pal of my friend David, reckoned:
I’ll definitely be on the look out for when the next crop appears. Maybe I’ll make a pesto, or a cordial. Whichever, despite the above, I’ll definitely approach wearing Marigolds.
Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Nozedar, A. (2012) The Hedgerow Handbook, Recipes, Remedies and Rituals, London, Square Peg
Roud, S. (2006) The English Year: A Month-By-Month Guide To The Nation’s Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night, London, Penguin Books
Simpson, J. and Roud, S. (2001) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Vickery, R. (2019) Vickery’s Folk Flora, An A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson