Grasping the Nettle

grasping the nettle

One of the best things about the arrival of spring is the chance to forage around the garden and fields for things to pick and eat. Food for free is itself a beguiling prospect, but somehow the very act of finding, picking and eating these leaves, berries, nuts or flowers links back to an ancient way of life.

Now that many of us buy such a high proportion of our food from supermarkets, it’s easy for people to disassociate food from its origins. It pains me to see people buying expensive little plastic punnets of blackberries in August when they only need to cross the road from our local supermarket to reach the country park, which has blackberries in abundance.

Picking food from the wild not only has economic advantages but you become aware of the ebb and flow of the seasons and get to explore and learn about your local area. After a few years, you know where the earliest blackberries ripen and where the most accessible sloes can be reached. With luck, you’ll share this with your friends and family, so that they too can reap the benefits and in turn pass on their knowledge of seasonality and locality.

One of the fears with foraging is that you’ll pick something poisonous, which is one of the reasons to use shared knowledge, so that you only pick what you know to be safe. If you’re not sure, it’s always better to ask someone who knows, rather than look at a blurry photograph from a website that may or may not give accurate information. So, why not start with stinging nettles, which most people can identify and know where to find a few to cut.

Once you’ve gathered your stinging nettles, what use should you put them to? Nettle tea apparently tastes very tea-like and works as a spring medicine and blood purifier while nettle hair rinse is said to make the hair soft and glossy and allegedly prevent baldness. The fibrous nature of stinging nettle stalks allows them to be used for textiles and paper in the same way as other plant fibres such as flax.

You can cook nettles to make a pale green soup or layer them with potatoes in a baked dish but my favourite way to eat nettles is to make a simple green bread. This bread uses bicarbonate of soda as the raising agent rather than yeast, making it quick to make with no kneading or hanging around while it proves. Whenever we demonstrate bread making on Open Farm Sunday, this green bread is always a favourite.

stinging nettles

You need a colander half filled with nettles, which takes little time to gather. Bearing in mind the stringy, fibrous quality of nettle stalks, either choose small tender shoots or snip off the top few tender leaves and leave the coarse lower leaves and stalk. I don’t like wearing gloves so find it easiest to take a colander and snip the tops straight into it, which means I don’t need to hold the plants. If you’re of a more cautious nature, then just wear a pair of rubber or leather gloves to avoid stinging your hands.

The recipe for the cheesy green bread is below. Cut into wedges while still warm and butter generously. Enjoy!



stinging nettle bread

Small colander of nettle leaves (the tops of 6 – 8 plants)

250g strong wholemeal flour

200g plain white flour

50g medium oatmeal

1 teasp salt

1 level teasp bicarbonate of soda

1 teasp honey

100ml yoghurt

350ml milk

100g strong English cheddar cheese, grated


Roughly snip the nettle leaves with scissors in the colander and then pour boiling water over them, which will let you handle them without getting stung. Leave to cool.

Put the flours, oatmeal, salt and bicarb in a bowl and then add the honey, yoghurt and milk, using a large spoon or your hands to mix them together. To this sticky dough, add the drained nettles and the grated cheese making sure they’re evenly distributed.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and quickly shape into a round. Don’t knead. Place on a greased baking sheet, slash a deep cross in the top and bake 30 minutes at 220C (or in AGA roasting oven).

Leave to cool, but I think this is best eaten while still warm. This loaf won’t keep overnight, so is best frozen if you don’t eat it all on the first day

34 thoughts on “Grasping the Nettle

  1. Yum yum! I like nettles in soup and risotto, but can’t help feeling it was the cream and/or Parmesan that made them taste delish, and not the nettles. One day, though, I’ll make a Greek spanakopitta with a mixture of spinach and nettles instead of just spinach.

    1. I hadn’t thought of using nettles in risotto and have just looked up spanakopitta, which looks delicious (though rather calorific). Recipes now bookmarked to try. Thanks Sophie

      1. I suppose you could make spanakopitta less evil by being stingier with the melted butter (when layering up the filo pastry). You can use fewer leaves of filo and spray with oil instead. Also, you can leave out the feta cheese and make it a greens-only spanakopitta. The essential thing, I think, is the dill, otherwise it doesn’t taste right.

  2. I have nettles growing in a tub. And I have never used them. They are used in biodynamics and as a compost activator .. I have yet to be stung by one, so treat them with respect. Your bread looks fabulous Anne .. I’d invite myself over if I lived closer 😄

  3. Oh it looks fabulous! I think the whole English hedgerow concept is glorious – I wish we had something similar here, but picking figs from the neighbour’s overhanging tree is as close as we can get. I don’t have nettles, but I think I could sub broccoli raab in your recipe. And it grows wild and self-sown in my garden, so it’s nearly free food. 🙂

    1. I’d be more than happy to pick figs from the neighbour’s tree! Spinach and chard make good substitutes for nettles. Let me know if the broccoli raab works.

  4. Good post, I enjoyed reading it and will try the bread. Nettles… the ultimate cut and come again plant. 😉 Ours haven’t really got their act together yet – still too cold, even on sunny days – but I’ll be picking when they do spring forth. The first of the two spring freebies… nettles and dandelions – or pissenlits as they are labelled in the supermarkets around here at 7 euros a kilo! My first nettle recipe of the season tends to be Hugh F-W’s nettles and cheese puff pastry squares though I usually add some crème fraîche to the nettles.

    (I have no connection to River Cottage other than having bought several books!)

    1. 7 euros a kilo! Good grief. I sometimes toss a few dandelion leaves in a salad but maybe I should be more adventurous. HFW nettle and cheese squares look good. Thanks for the link.

  5. It’s good to have the encouragement to use nettles – they are definitely an underused resource. The only time I have cooked with them was when I was helping out with a church exhibition many years ago – we were asked to make old time foods, and it fell to me to make a Herb Pudding (apparently often eaten in Lent, when meat and fish were restricted). It included nettles, dandelion leaves, bistort, dock leaf, barley, eggs etc – and was really surprisingly nice. I’ve just looked in my old recipe book, and there the recipe is – so I might try it again. Wonder what my husband would think? 🙂

    1. I find it best to be rather economical with the truth when the family ask what’s on their plate until they’ve tasted it. Herb Pudding sounds very interesting. Is it a northern thing?

      1. I don’t know where the recipe comes from, Anne – we were living in Devon when I made it, but I have found a recipe in Rosamond Richardson’s Hedgerow Cookery which was local to Kendal, Westmoreland ( 🙂 – such a lovely name) Here’s the recipe I used should you wish to have a go – I guess you can adjust pretty freely according to availability. 2 handfuls young nettle tops, 2 handfuls fresh greens (broccoli, cabbage, kale or sprouts), 2 handfuls bistort, 2 handfuls barley, 2 leeks, 1 dock leaf, 3 – 4 dandelion leaves, walnut sized piece of butter, 1 egg, salt and pepper, 2- 3 leaves raspberry, gooseberry or blackcurrant. Wash all well, chop greens finely, add to barley and tie up in a cloth and put into pan of boiling, well-salted water. Boil for an hour. Turn into a well-warmed bowl, lightly fold in the beaten egg and butter, season with salt and pepper and serve hot!

        1. Thanks for the recipe. I shall definitely give this a go, though we don’t have bistort around here so I’ll have to substitute that. I didn’t realise dock leaves were edible – isn’t blogging wonderful when you learn new things?

  6. I had forgotten about nettles as a food. I grew up with nettle tea in our cupboard all year round, it is refreshing mixd with lemon verbena (not sure if this literal translation from German is correct), and rather diuretic. We mostly drank herbal and/or fruit infusions when I was little, rarely proper tea. Rosehip is another tea I enjoy. My daughter and I went on a foraging walk, we collected nettles and crisped them up over a fire. It was lovely. I guess it might be better to pick young non stingy shoots for that. It is a good time of year for green nettle bread and I just printed off the recipe. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hope the bread is successful. My son wants me to try crisping nettles so that’s next on the list. It’s a new one for me and I have no idea where he got the idea from but it sounds good.

  7. I’ve never used nettles in cooking or baking before, but this bread looks really good. I do like to pick blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, brambles and alpine strawberries. I’m still on the hunt for a good patch of sloes!

    1. Hope you find your patch of sloes. The blackthorn blossom is in flower around here so it’s a good time to spot where the bushes are.

      1. Thanks. A friend of my hubbie knows of a great patch, but he’s not telling anyone! I keep asking hubby if he’s spotted any possible blackthorn patches around the farm when he’s out and about in places I don’t venture so when they are in season I know where to look but so far he hasn’t. I would really like to go on a guided foraging tour as i’m not really up on all the possible plants and fruits that I could be foraging for.

  8. An interesting bread recipe, I will have to see if I can persuaded ‘cook’ to give it a try! The one draw back is I shall have to pick the nettles, I could substitute it for the kale and chard growing on the allotment.

  9. I am sure that this will be very popular on farm sunday! I wish that there were more foraging opportunities where I live, especially for blackberries and sloes, but it is too urban. One day I might move to the country again and then you can be sure that I will be out with the old walking stick hooking down blackberry canes and picking loads of them! xx

    1. It is more difficult in an urban situation to forage, but it’s surprising what you can find if you look. When we walked through London as part of the Greenwich Meridian Trail, we were amazed by how much greenery and wildness there can be in a city.

  10. Hi Anne. I love foraging for food . I love it when I have grown or foraged all the ingredients for dinner. I get such a sense of achievement. I remember when I was in England years ago I walked through some nettles not knowing what they were. A man mentioned that I was very brave. It wasn’t long before I realised why he said that.

    1. You walked through nettles! Hope you found a dock leaf to soothe the stings. You’re right, it’s a real achievement when dinner consists of things you’ve grown or foraged.

      1. Anne, I had no idea what they were. I thought they were just weeds. I should be excused I am from the southern hemisphere.

  11. I’ve enjoyed reading your post AND everyone’s nettle suggestions! I knew you could make soup and risotto but truthfully I’ve never been game – I think of nettle as a weed and so I snobbily think “I’m not that poor YET” 🙂 I just dig it in to the garden; I made nettle ‘compost’ tea for the garden but it smelt so revolting I never did it again!

  12. Ooh, this recipe looks delicious. I have to admit that I’ve never cooked with nettles or even eaten them… This has given me the impetus to give them a go. Thank you Anne.

  13. I know what you mean about people buying punnets of blackberries when they could have got them for free quite easily!

    As for nettles we have yet to go foraging for any this year but mine are starting to grow in the garden. Had a great nettle soup made by friends the other day, though.

  14. Thanks for the recipe. I’m going to make this tomorrow. I often make nettle soup at this time of year with the new shoots. Delicious with a snipping of young chives.

  15. I love the idea of this Anne, so much fresher and nicer than any crunchy plastic packet from the supermarket. I have made green bread with non-wild things from the garden before but not nettles. Each winter nettles actually self seed in my garden and I always say I am going to cook with them…perhaps this winter I actually will. Layered with potatoes is a great idea too!

  16. Anne, I’ve been meaning to send you some nettle recipes for a while!

    Wild Greens and Feta Borek: 2 tbs olive oil, 200g nettles, 300 g wild rocket, 200 g feta (crumbled), black pepper, 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, 2 eggs, 250 ml milk, 6 tbsp melted butter, 20 sheets filo pastry, 2 tbsp nigella seeds.
    Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and saute the nettles and rocket for 2 minutes until just wilted. Thoroughly squeeze dry the greens with your hands, and place them in a large bowl. Add the feta, black pepper, cayenne, and mix.
    In another bowl beat the eggs then stir in the milk and melted butter. Oil a 10×20 cm baking tray. Line the tray with a sheet of filo, brush generously with the egg mixture, then top with another sheet and repeat the process until you have used half the filo sheets.
    Now spoon in the greens and feta mixture and top with the remaining filo as before, brushing with the egg mixture between each layer. Pour any remaining egg over the final layer and sprinkle with nigella seeds. Bake in the oven at 200C (fan)/gas mark 7 for 30-35 mins or until golden brown. Cool and cut into diamond shapes to serve.

    Sumac braised nettles topped with onion seeds:
    300 g freshly picked nettle leaves, 500 ml hot water, 3 tbsp olive oil, 6 spring onions (finely sliced), 1 garlic clove (crushed), 150 g white long-grain rice, 1/2 tsp crushed or ground sumac, 1 tsp toasted onion seeds, 100 g feta.
    Wearing globes, place the nettles in a saucepan and pour over the hot water. Boil for 1-2 minutes, until wilted, then drain but keep a cupful of the leftover water.
    In a large saucepan gently heat the olive oil. Saute the spring onions and garlic for 2-3 minutes. Add the rice, stirring to ensure the grains are well coated with the oil. Finally, add the wilted nettles and the reserved water. Cover and simmer for 10-12 minutes, until the rice is soft and all the liquid has been absorbed. Season, sprinkle with the sumac, stir well and serve topped with the toasted onion seeds and a wedge of feta on the side.

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