Wednesday, 7 May 2008

A sting in the tale

A while back I went an entire year without having my hair cut. It wasn’t a concerted effort to release the inner hippy or have an instant ‘Neanderthal man’ costume should I be invited to any fancy dress parties, more a result of circumstances – those circumstances being a product of having more important things to spend my money on, like rent, bills and food. It crept up on me and went through a rather wild phase that required a significant amount of hair stuff and even an alice band to prevent it from springing out into a large bouffant before it could finally be tamed into pony tail and eventually loose curls that hung down rather than out. I was content with my general look but it was a comment from my grandmother that finally convinced me that I should probably pay a visit to the hairdresser: ‘ooh, you look just like that Hugh Fearnley chap’, she said on seeing me for the first time in a couple of months. I glanced into the mirror that adorns her lounge wall and could see that it was an uncomfortably accurate observation. I duly trudged off to the barber before she could say ‘Whittingstall’.

Aside from the aforementioned similarly unruly hair, dark rimmed glasses and a fondness for cooking and writing I’d not thought of myself as bearing any other similarities to HFW, I didn’t go to public school for a start, but I’m gradually realising that this situation is changing. At a slightly unnerving pace. For the last 24 years I’ve viewed nettles as a pain in the arse, or arm or wherever they happen to sting you. Between the ages of about four and twelve I reckon the average child is stung approximately ten thousand times by nettles lurking furtively in bushes, ready to attack as soon as a hand moves in to retrieve a lost tennis ball and every child knows someone who knows someone whose cousin ‘fell into a whole bunch of them and ended up having to go to hospital. Honestly, I’m not lying, you can ask my mum’. They are like the tabloid paedophile of the plant world. But now that I am a paid up, card-carrying, straw-chewing, welly-wearing resident of the countryside, nettles are no longer a menace, they are a bountiful, tasty and free foodstuff residing in large colonies around every corner just waiting to be transformed into something delicious and full of vitamins.

With this in mind my girlfriend and I embarked on our first foraging mission armed with scissors, gloves, a plastic bag and visions of a vivid green nettle risotto as a reward. Neither of us had ever tasted nettles and my decision to wear jeans with gaping holes in the knees proved to be a little foolish, but good intentions are important as are the valuable lessons learned from experience. And, apart from forgetting that I was wearing wholly (holey?) unsuitable jeans and kneeling into a healthy pile of the vindictive weeds, it was an excellent experience. There is something gloriously gratifying about gathering your own food, especially with someone as wildly and unashamedly enthusiastic about it as I am. After no more than ten minutes picking we’d gathered a generous half bag of young leaves from the top of the nettles lining the country road and were on way back home to attempt an almost alchemic transformation. Granted, there are few foodstuffs that cannot be improved with the addition of a generous amount of butter and cheese but nevertheless, nettle risotto is a triumph.

After a thorough wash and wilting in a pan, the nettles were sautéed over a high heat in a little butter, just enough so that the edges were tinged with a gentle brown colour and taking on a slightly caramelised quality. The smell was fresh, deeply redolent of the countryside with a jumpy vibrancy and grassy softness and stirring them into a rich risotto at the last minute was a great way to make the most of them.

Since then we’ve been foraging again – with more substantial trousers – and made skate with wilted nettles and cinnamon and, of course, nettle soup although I haven’t yet been able to pluck up the courage to munch down a nettle salad, as recommended by a number of ‘raw food’ websites.

Seen as the recipe for nettle risotto is virtually complete above, I thought I’d include my recipe for making nettle soup. If you want to attempt this, be quick – nettles aren’t good eating after they begin to flower, usually sometime in June.

Nettle Soup (approximate ingredients)
One small onion, finely chopped
Two cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Four or five generous handfuls of washed nettles (don’t forget to use gloves)
Two medium sized potatoes, peeled and diced
One vegetable stock cube
One litre of water
Olive Oil
Salt and pepper

Gently fry off the onion and garlic in a generous glug of olive oil in the bottom of a saucepan large enough to take all the ingredients. After ten minutes over a gentle heat, add the nettles and wilt slightly. Pour in the water, add the potatoes and stock cube and leave to simmer for about twenty minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked. Blitz it up then return it to the pan. Check for seasoning and serve with crème fraiche or natural yoghurt stirred through. And plenty of warm bread, of course.

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