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.
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!
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
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