Growing up, we foraged a lot. Like with many rural families, it is second nature for my parents and the extended Norfolk clan to make the most of the myriad of edibles growing along hedgerows and marshlands in and around our village and along the nearby coastline. In the summer we would spend happy, muddy days at the beach raking for cockles, gathering mussels, picking bunches of salty samphire, and collecting hundreds of tiny winkles, to be boiled and picked from the shells with a pin in order to make the most painstaking and time consuming – but in the eyes of my late Grandmother, the best – sandwich in the world.
Come autumn, it was crab apples, damsons, bullaces and sloes picked from the hedgerows to make jams and gins and the spring brought elder flower for cordials and for my Grandfather, birch sap to make a wine of highly dubious, knock-you-flat potency.
Living in London has, unsurprisingly, severely hampered my foraging exploits. You read a lot in magazines and online about more country-minded city dwellers marching around Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park picking elder flowers and the like but I just can’t get to grips with it. It always feels a bit too close to a major road, a hoard of bladder-happy dogs or just generally a bit too urban and grubby…I guess I have been spoilt by my formative years as a country bumpkin. I do miss eating foraged food though, so when I saw a bag of nettle tips from rural Kent in the farmers market the other day I could not resist, even if it pained me to pay for it!
I know that many people shy away from these aggressive greens – too many memories of childhood stings or just put off by the faff of gloving-up to prepare them for cooking – but nettles are amazing. They have a delicious, green and slightly nutty taste to them and are as versatile as spinach to cook. To top it off they are a fantastic source of magnesium, calcium and iron. Although usually best eaten in early spring when the shoots are new and tender, throughout summer and autumn it is always possible to find new sprouting nettles to enjoy.
With this batch I made a classic nettle soup. I gently sweated onions, garlic and potato along with the picked nettle leaves and homemade chicken stock before blitzing it together to make a gorgeously silky, emerald green soup that I topped with a dollop of mild and creamy cows curd from Neal’s Yard Dairy and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It was utterly delicious and all importantly silenced my increasingly rowdy, urban-grumbling inner bumpkin!
Always use fresh nettle tips or the smaller, greener leaves. Discard any massive leaves and thick stalks. Give the remaining leaves a very thorough wash before use! Finally, remember to wear gloves, although I’m pretty sure you could figure that one out yourself…
- 3 large handfuls of nettles
- 60g butter
- 1 medium white onion, peeled and diced
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 medium potato, cubed
- 1 litre chicken stock (substitute vegetable stock if you wish, but I really recommend chicken)
- Salt and pepper
- 100g cows curd or creme fraiche
- drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp chia seeds (optional)
In a large saucepan melt the butter and add the onions. Gently sweat them over a low heat until soft and translucent. Add the potato and cook for five minutes. Turn up the heat slightly, stirring constantly until the onions and potato go lightly golden (not looking to fry them, but just to get a little more colour and flavour). Lower the heat and add the garlic, cook very gently for 2 minutes.
Pour over the chicken stock and leave to gently simmer until the potato is tender. Add your nettle leaves and simmer for 2 minutes – the longer you cook the nettles for the less vibrant your soup will be. Remove from the heat and transfer the mix to a blender jug (if you have a small blender like me, it might have to be done in batches). Blitz until totally smooth. Return the soup to the pan to reheat and season to taste.
To serve, pour the soup into bowls and top with a dollop of cows curd, a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of maldon sea salt and chia seeds.