This nettle soup recipe was inspired by my colleague Raphi, who is a wild food lover and studying herbal medicine. Nettles have long been known for their immune boosting qualities, and now is the best time of year to pick them as the leaves are still young and tender. Easily found, foraging for nettles is rewarding, and a great excuse to get out into nature at a time when so much of the world is social distancing.
I’m lucky enough to be able to spend one day a week working on an organic farm. After a surreal and difficult week in the office, spending the day collecting eggs, harvesting kale and shovelling compost was exactly what I needed. There is something very reassuring and grounding about working on the land, being reminded that even whilst the coronavirus ripples through the world, the vegetables keep growing; the season’s are still changing; the world keeps turning.
Raphi, along with her partner, Luke and farm manager, Rachel, make up the dream team at the Fold farm. They work tirelessly throughout the year to make sure there are enough veggies for our café, farm shop and veg box scheme. Most of the year her and Luke live in their van at the bottom of one of the fields, spending as much time out in nature as possible.
Originally from the French town of Avignon, it wasn’t until she finished her studies at Toulouse university when she realised she wanted to do something useful with her hands. Her and a girlfriend acquired some land and started to cultivate it “and that was the beginning of the reality check”. Two years of back-breaking work ensued, until they both admitted they had a lot to learn from others first. Off they went, first to Spain, then to the UK, until Raphi eventually found her way to the Fold in rural Worcestershire, where she has now been for almost two years.
By now Raphi is an experienced grower, and can now turn her attention to learning about wild food and herbal medicine. All around the farm and the surrounding countryside there are dozens of different plants that have been used by people for hundreds of years to heal and cure. The plants she is after, such as dandelion, cleavers or yarrow root, are normally the kinds of things that are weeded out by gardeners. Practicing herbal medicine requires a certain kind of presence, inquiring and investigating herbs that are so often overlooked by the rest of us.
When I ask Raphi why she loves herbal medicine, she says because it allows her to connect with the seasons and the land around her. The types of herbs that can be foraged from the fields around Worcester in March are very different to those found in Spain, or Iran, and at different times of the year. Also, there is something ancestral about herbal medicine which she likes, foraging for plants to eat and cure is something we have done since time began; yarrow root has been found in ancient Neanderthal burial grounds, for instance.
Nettles and people go hand in hand, wherever the soil has been enriched by human settlements – be it cemeteries or back gardens, you will always find nettles. They are excellent at absorbing and storing the nutrients from the ground around them. Because of this, their nutritional stats see them ranking at the very top end of the table, they have very high levels of vitamin A and C, zinc, iron and protein. Topically in a time of Coronavirus, they enhance natural immunity and help protect us from infections. And drinking nettle tea at the start of a fever can be beneficial.
Early spring is the best time to forage nettles as the leaves are still tender and less fibrous. Pick the leaves at the top of the plant and wear gloves to avoid getting your hands stung. Or if you’re hardcore like Raphi and go without gloves, it’s good to know that if you brush the nettle in the direction from stem to leaf tip then you won’t get stung, but if you do it the other way, you will.
Since you’re going to be foraging for the nettles, it’s worth sharing a few more words of wisdom from Raphi:
- Don’t pick more than you need
- Don’t pick everything from one area. Instead pick a little from one patch, a little more from another, and so on.
- Use caution when foraging for herbs. If there’s something you don’t recognise, or you’re not sure it’s nettle, then identify it first before cooking and eating it. Some wilds plants, such as dog’s mercury, can be poisonous.
There are more things to consider when foraging, to see the full foraging etiquette, check out the Woodland Trust’s website.
To get even more health benefits from this meal Raphi suggests cooking it with garlic, and seeing as there’s loads of wild garlic around at the moment, I made the soup along with a wild garlic pesto, and the two taste banging together.
Recipe for Nettle Soup with Wild Garlic Peston
For the soup
- 6 large handfuls of nettle tops
- 50g butter
- 2 onions
- 3 potatoes
- veg stock
- 1/2 nutmeg
- Dash of white wine vinegar
Wash the nettles and remove any really tough stalks still attached
Heat the butter in a pan, add the chopped onions and cook until golden
Add the nettles and chopped potatoes to the pot with the onions and cook for a couple of minutes
Add the veg stock, cover and simmer for 20 mins or until the potatoes can be crushed with the back of a spoon.
Add nutmeg, seasoning and a dash of vinegar to taste. Blend.
For the pesto
- 200g wild garlic
- 100g parmesan
- 50g pinenuts
- 50g hazelnuts
- 1/2 lemon
- rapeseed oil
Wash the wild garlic, rinse then blitz in a food processor.
Add the grated parmesan and blitz again.
Add the nuts and oil to the processor and continue to blitz. Add seasoning, lemon juice and more oil (if desired) through the top of the processor.
Transfer the mixture to jars and pour on top enough oil to cover the mixture. This will help to preserve the mixture. The pesto can then be kept in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or frozen.
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