Nettles: take your chance with the sting and come out with a plant full of goodness
Long considered a niche, foraged weeds and vegetables are beginning to take off in restaurants after a 20-year slow burn. The common and sometimes vicious stinging nettle is arguably the most successful and popular foraged weed in the UK. Here, Produce Business delves into hedgerows and takes a closer look at what is being described as a “nutritional powerhouse” Indigenous to the countryside, woods and gardens of Great Britain, nettles have been used as a staple foodstuff in several European countries for years and, some say, are one of nature’s most sustainable and plentiful offerings to the foraging world. Chefs are increasingly picking up on the versatility, flavour and nutritional value of the weeds and, as a result, nettles are slowly increasing their share of British dinner plates.
Latin name: Urtica dioica
UK season: Traditionally, the best time to pick stinging nettles is when they are young and before they flower, so March to April is known for the best and easy pickings. However, commercial foraging has prevailed and many kitchen-garden chefs and foragers apply a sustainable system to the wild plants they find, so they can go back again and again, throughout summer.
“Stinging nettles are best picked before May, but if you pick just the heads of the plants, they will continue to grow more young shoots in its place, so you can continue to pick,” says forager for the restaurants, Yun Hider, from The Wild Food Centre, who supplies around 500g-2kg to individual restaurants on a weekly basis. “We pick nettles from the same patches on the outskirts of Pembrokeshire (Wales) and if you maintain the plant, you can keep coming back for more.”
How to harvest: A pair of rubber gloves is essential to harvest nettles and Hider says only to pick if you are absolutely certain it is the right plant. “People can make mistakes and you can pick a plant that isn’t edible or doesn’t taste very nice,” he continues. “You also have to pick with care. You have to leave some for nature, so the plant will replenish and leave some for everyone else to enjoy. You should only pick what you need.”
Origin/history: Nettles grow in Europe, Asia, Africa and the US and have a long history as a medicine and a food. Historically eaten in the US by settlers when food was scarce, nettles are also traditionally used in cheese-making to wrap cheeses. The use of nettles in soups has been well documented in eastern European countries and northern India for centuries.
Some 20 years ago, the commercial foraging scene in the UK was very quiet and foragers such as Hider felt they had to push the products forward to chefs rather than experiencing the pull of demand we see now.
“It was only the big chefs, like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay who where actively seeking out nettles at one time,” he explains. “It was a quiet time and no one else was doing wild veg. Now there are all manner of things chefs want us to find and a lot more competition out there. Nettles are the best-known edible weed and the pace of demand has picked up slowly to it being more commonplace.”
Appearance: Nettles grow in bushy plants with leaves not dissimilar to mint in their shape, texture and colour, apart from the long hairs on the stems and underneath the leaves that carry the sting. The plant also has white flowers, but if it has flowered it is generally considered to be past its best for eating.
Flavour: Tastes similar to a brassica; many people compare nettles to spinach, cabbage and broccoli.
How to use: Replacing spinach with nettles in recipes is a general rule for a good nettle dish. Of course, the preparation process is a little different and must be upheld, or you’ll be giving your guests a little more than they bargained for.
To rid the nettle of its sting, you must blanch the leaves. Food writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recommends continuing to use rubber gloves to handle and wash nettles before putting them into a pan of boiling water and wilting until limp, but still intact. You can then refresh and dry them, or use them in a recipe.
Nutrition: Nature has a way of hiding or protecting the best stuff from being discovered or eaten and nettles are a perfect example of this, as once you take your chance with that terrible sting, you come out with a plant full of goodness. One portion of nettles can contain up to 17% of your recommended daily intake of iron and its level of calcium is even higher. Nettles also contain vitamin A, C and K and fibre. They are also known for relieving premenstrual syndrome, preventing headaches, mood swings and bloating. People also drink nettle tea to combat respiratory and urinary problems, diabetes and protect themselves against kidney stones. They can also been used in medicines for arthritis.
Popular dishes: Forager, Hider is keen on nettle and wild garlic soup and also likes to make a syrup with the nettles to add to a white-wine spritzer cocktail. Fearnley-Whittingstall makes a nettle bahji and wilts nettles with butter and grated nutmeg, and makes tea out of them. Nettles are also used to make beer.
Chef fans: Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, John Rensten, James Nathan and Kristian Eligh.
Next big thing in foraging: Hawthorn berries