“He who is afraid of every nettle should not pee in the grass.”
The common Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, was for many generations an important traditional food in Ireland, providing a free and tasty ingredient for soups, purées and sauces in the spring. As they are rich in minerals and vitamins and said to cleanse the blood, nettles were taken as a medicinal herbal tea – for a sort of internal spring cleaning – on three consecutive days, beginning on May Day.
Nettles can be found in every hedgerow and ditch, and just about everyone has been stung by one at some point. Not so many people eat them nowadays, but in times past they were an important fall back when food was really scarce. They also provided a welcome change from the unrelenting monotony of plain potato soup which comprised a large part of the diet of poorer Irish people, providing a free, tasty and nutritious addition.
There is an old Irish song called “In the Town of Ballybay“, about an impoverished women with many children which says:
“She fed them on potatoes and a soup made out of nettles
and a lump of hairy bacon that she boiled up in a kettle”
She was probably unaware of the fact that the nettles she fed her brood are rich in minerals, especially calcium and iron, as well as vitamins A and C. For poor people who did not have much access to meat or fruit, nettles made a significant contribution to the diet. More importantly nowadays, soup made from nettles tastes delicious and there is something very satisfying in producing a delicious soup from an ingredient you gathered yourself from nature. It satisfies the hunter-gatherer lurking in all of us.
Obviously, unless you are a masochist, you need to wear gloves to avoid being stung while collecting your bounty, though once cooked the nettle’s sting disappears.
For the soup you need to collect enough nettles to at least half fill a supermarket carrier bag – the absolute amount is not critical. Pick only the nettle tops and go for the younger, brighter green leaves.
1 bag of nettles
2 medium-sized potatoes, diced
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
I stick celery, sliced into small pieces
2 cups (1 pint) stock
1 cups (½ pint) milk
Small knob of butter
Salt and pepper
Add a clove or two of garlic (optional)
Wash the nettles in cold water and drain. Pat dry with a clean towel.
Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium temperature and add the onions, nettles, celery and potato. Stir to coat the with the butter and ‘sweat’ them in the saucepan for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, if you are using it, about a minute before the rest of the ingredients are done. The nettles should be well wilted.
Pour the stock and the milk into the saucepan, bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15-20 minutes. Pour into a blender and zap. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with cream and fresh parsley and accompanied by crusty brown bread.