Nettles revisited: how time removes the sting

Today I had nettle soup for the first time in over 30 years. Wind the clock back three decades and I am sat at a small kitchen table in a terraced house by the river Gyffin in Conwy, North Wales. A place of childhood culinary excitement mixed with not a little apprehension as Granny served tea for the family. I remember rich steak and kidney pies, soft chicken liver pate, sweet Welsh cakes and my particular favourite – chicken, chips and curry sauce. The kitchen smelled of mellow spices and ripening fruit; a pervasive smell which, even now, connects me with that past in a very tangible way.


Holidays with Granny and Grandpa in Conwy – happy times

Granny was an excellent self-taught cook – intelligent, exacting and experimental. She used local produce, often gathered from the hedgerows or bought on our walks in the country lanes from local farmers or producers. Her food was comforting and tasty, but also different, challenging, often because of its unfamiliar ingredients. Game always came with a warning to watch out for the shot and kale came with healthy looking caterpillars more often than not. Bilberries and hazelnuts were ingredients which I looked forward to having on my visits, especially if we got to forage for them first, but nettles had rather less appeal. I remember strong tasting dark green soups which I rather dreaded and the adults drinking dried nettle tea, whilst I, thankfully, had Granny’s lovely fresh lemonade.


A little book of treasured culinary memories

Many years ago I gave her a blank recipe book which she gradually filled with her own recipes and her thoughts on food (including how best to remove the skins from chestnuts and how to make an effective substitution of different gluten free flours for wheat flour.) After she died, nearly 5 years ago, I found the recipe book and now keep it in my kitchen to refer to when cooking for my family and to provide a link with the person who inspired my love of cooking with ingredients closely linked to the natural world.


One of the pages of soup recipes

The book lists 14 soup recipes, but makes no reference to nettles – maybe it wasn’t her favourite soup either. But this week I noticed the fresh new growth on the nettles beside the path on the way to school and felt a desire to reinterpret the past by cooking for the first time with this free natural resource.


These young nettles brought back memories of childhood meals

I love making soups – they are so quick, versatile and economical. Curried root vegetable soups defrost even the coldest fingers after winter forays outdoors, green Thai cabbage soup deals with spring gluts and fresh tomato soup celebrates the bounty of the summer garden. The success of a good soup often rests on the quality of the stock, and Granny used boiling fowl as meat for chicken pies and carcasses for stock to improve the flavour of all types of soup. Although I do use powered stock, when we roast a chicken the stock made with the carcass (in addition to some vegetables and herbs) is as prized as the roast dinner which precedes it.


Nettles washed and ready for steaming – they should be picked when young and you’ll need to wear gloves!

My nettle soup began with a chopped large onion, a chopped clove of elephant garlic (because that’s what I happened to have in my garlic bag left over from last year’s harvest) and a chopped large potato, all fried in butter until softened and then barely covered in homemade chicken stock (you could, of course, use any stock). I simmered the soup base until the potato was fully cooked and then added two large colanders of well-washed young nettle tops and leaves.


Soup ready to be blended

These took only a minute or two to steam (which removes the sting) and then I blended the soup and passed it through a sieve to ensure a smooth consistency (not essential and not a step which I imagine Granny would have approved of, but I wanted to give the soup the best opportunity to succeed.)


My trusty mixer earns its keep blending soups throughout the year

After blending I added a cup of single cream and salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Then we had a lunch packed full of vitamins and iron, which even my 4 year old daughter described as ‘delicious’. The flavour of the nettles was much more delicate than I remember and the frugal nature of the meal, alongside its fresh, spinach-like taste will definitely secure nettle soup a place on our lunch menu in the future.


Lunch looked quite promising

If nettle soup doesn’t appeal to your sense of nostalgia in the way it does to mine, then nettles can still be used as a compost ‘tea’ to fertilise the garden for free. They are rich in nitrogen, so can be used as a feed for leafy greens or can be mixed with comfrey (high in potassium and vitamin B12) to make a balanced feed. Nettles can be harvested, crushed up and weighed down in a bucket, then covered with water and left for a couple of weeks to decompose. The resultant liquid can be diluted about 10:1 (water:nettle feed) until it resembles the colour of tea and then watered onto plants to encourage strong, leafy growth. (Avoid use on young seedlings as the nutrient concentration is too high and might cause damage.)


Beginnings of nettle feed

I would advise using a bucket with a lid to avoid the interesting experience we had a few years ago when our compost tea became filled with rat-tailed maggots, most often larvae of the European hoverfly or drone fly, Eristalis tenax. I was astonished by the size of the tail or siphon, which can be as long again as its body and which is used as a breathing tube whilst the maggot is submerged. I must admit, shamefacedly, to enlisting the help of my husband to evict the inhabitants – although by the time we discovered them I think they were probably dead as they would have been unable to crawl out of the bucket to pupate. A salutary lesson in covering the bucket in future!

NB: Just goes to show how your attitudes change as you become more knowledgeable about wildlife – 5 years on from writing this I have become fascinated with the lifecycle of hoverflies. If we are lucky enough to have so-called ‘rat-tailed maggots’ in our new pond this year, I’ll be highly delighted!


Walking with Granny on Conwy mountain where we would spend many happy hours picking bilberries


We often had a margarine tub in hand and Granny always had a plastic bag in her pocket – ready to collect whatever treasures presented themselves

This year I will be using the free resource provided by nettles to feed myself and the garden in our own different ways. And I’ll be celebrating a woman for whom the natural world was both resource and inspiration for her love of cooking for her family.


If you cook nettle or other foraged soups, I’d love to hear about it. Please share by commenting below as it’s always interesting to learn new recipes to add to my list of old favourites.

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Thank you very much.

Nic Wilson