If you’re a fan of chives and are just getting started with wild food then you’ll find May a really wonderful time of year for the nettle connoisseur.
One of the main obstacles facing would-be (some might say ‘budding’) foragers is self-doubt. From an early age we’re ‘warned’ (rather than educated) about the dangers of eating wild food and with modern supermarket produce being grown for appearance and shelf-life rather than taste we can often be dubious of nature’s somewhat less vain demeanour. There are some amazing guide books available to the amateur, but they wouldn’t be worth their salt if they didn’t warn of the dangers of mistaking wild parsnip for hemlock. Fortunately for the faint hearted (and we include ourselves in this description) actual foraging is a multi-sensory extravaganza which mere words can barely hope to describe in full. Of all the clues which help the forager in their quest (understanding seasons & habitat, a good eye, etc.) smell remains one of our greatest aids (Hemlock smells, to be perfectly frank, like mouse piss).
May is a great time for amateur foragers because plants are easier to identify when they’re in flower. Apart from our old friend the nettle, there are two easily recognisable white flowering plants around this time of year who’s smell is unmistakeable, Ramsons (Allium ursinum) and Jack-by-the-Hedge (Alliaria petiolata); the clue to what they smell like can be found in their alternative common names – Wild Garlic and Garlic Mustard. This time of year you can often catch a whiff of garlic as you walk by either plant (though Ramsons are far smellier), if in doubt simply rub a leaf between your fingers and enjoy their hunger-inducing aroma.
If you’re a fan of stronger flavours, like garlic, onions or chives (to which Ramsons are related), then Ramsons are for you. They can be found in woodland and shady spots throughout the UK;
the elliptical, rich green leaves look like Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis), but the white, starburst flowers are very different from C majalis‘s delicate bells.
Ramsons leaves can be used as salad, boiled as a vegetable, or finely chopped as a flavouring in lieu of chives or basil. The bulbs and flowers are also quite tasty. This being a Nettle Diary, we’re going to use them as a flavouring.
If you’re not a fan of big flavours then go for the Jack-by-the-Hedge. As the name suggests Jack can be found by hedgerows, but he can also be seen by walls, kerbsides (though we wouldn’t recommend eating anything that grew near traffic) and – luckily for the following recipe – in nettle patches. In fact the leaves are very much like large, rounded nettle leaves making the plant look a bit like a bloated dead-nettle.
Unusually this is one of the only plants to smell like garlic that is not a family relation. The leaves, flowers and fruit are edible as food for humans, and are best when young. They have a much milder flavour and are good with spring lamb.
There are a huge number of Nettle Soup recipes available in books and online and we recommend you play around with various recipes. We love old ‘Roadkill’ himself, Fergus Drennan, but we made the following ‘Wild by replacing the garlic with strips of Ramsons leaves which we think makes it more ‘authentic’.
Seasonal Recipe: Nettle and Wild Garlic Soup (serves 10 ish)
1 rectangular veg.stall wicker basket full of young nettle tops. (wash well) –
or between 500g- 1kg
1 large leek (roughly chopped)
2 medium sized onions (roughly chopped)
2 very large potatoes (peeled and chopped quite small)
1-2 cloves of garlic (chopped/crushed) – or 2-3 shredded Ramsons leaves for the Greenjacker version!
vegetable stock to taste (cube/powder etc)
3 pints water
2.5 pints milk
4 bunches (of approx 50gs) wild garlic (Alliun ursinum) (finely chopped)
a little olive oil
cream (single or double)
salt and pepper
a few garlic mustard leaves for garnish (Alliaria petiolata)
Place all ingredients in a large saucepan except the cream, 1 bunch of the wild garlic and 1 pint of the milk. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes, then liquidize. Also, liquidize the remaining pint of milk with the chopped wild garlic. Swirl some of this and a little cream into the soup once you have put it in a bowl. Garnish with a couple of garlic mustard leaves – only a couple though, as this is the food plant of the beautiful Orange Tip butterfly’s caterpillar.
The following recipe from Denniblog was also quite nice, but we didn’t find any need to ‘denature’ the nettle leaves as cooking does this anyway…
Wild Garlic & Nettle Soup
About the hardest bit is picking the nettles (with thick gardening gloves!). I advise to do it just after a good shower has washed away any potential bird shit, then stick the wet leaves in the microwave for 2 minutes to denature the toxin (or boil them, but note that most of the flavour will be lost to the water) before washing them briefly and stripping off the tough stalks. Only the young shoots or tips of the plants are tender enough to bother with.
1 onion; 2 cloves garlic; 1-2 tbsp olive oil; wild garlic: about 125g or 10-12 large leaves; nettles: about 1 cup worth after heating to denature the stinging poison; 1 raw potato, cubed; nutmeg; salt & black pepper; crème fraîche;
Sweat the finely chopped onion and crushed garlic then add the shredded wild garlic and wilt quickly. Add the nettles, potato and enough water to just cover. Simmer until tender (15-20 minutes) and add seasonings. Cool slightly, pureé with a soup stick (careful to keep the thing submerged unless you want to end up looking like the Green Giant) and add water to the desired consistency. Re-heat gently, adding crème fraîche and more seasoning to taste. Serve with a dollop of cream and finely chopped wild garlic leaves or chives or croûtons.
One final ingredient vital to any recipe you try is a good wholemeal crusty roll – enjoy!