Forage, cook, eat

spring undergrowth

If you drive along English country lanes at this time of year, it would be easy to dismiss the green blur of the verges as simply boring grass. But slow down to a walking pace and in amongst the different types of grass you can see so much more. The first leaves of cow parsley, a forerunner of the frothy flowers that will line the roads in a few weeks vie for growing space with the bright green new growth of stinging nettles; a mouse scuttles through the undergrowth to safety and a frog sits motionless, blending into the undergrowth until it suddenly catapults into action; cleavers and speedwell spread outwards beside the first flowering primroses.

jug of wild violets

Best of all, nestled in the undergrowth, are beautiful violets, their colours ranging from white with the merest hint of violet through to a deep, rich purple with the colour offset by their shiny green leaves. Turn off the road and walk along a public footpath and you’ll probably find even more. Just now, there’s enough violets to put in a small jug on the bedside table but before long there’ll be plenty to make a small batch of violet syrup or violet liqueur.

Nettle, cheese and chive scones

Naturally, there’s no shortage of stinging nettles and this is an excellent time of year to use them. At the weekend, I snipped off the heads of a few nettles to make scones. There were comments around the table that normal people don’t eat nettle scones or, for that matter, the violet infused milk jellies that we ate for supper. But why don’t we eat more nettles? They’re abundant, they’re free and are right on trend as foraged food but without the poisoning worries of foraging for fungi.

Nettles cut for the kitchen

Use the top six or seven leaves of a young plant and cut them straight into a colander so that you don’t have to handle them or wear rubber gloves to avoid stinging your hands. Rinse the leaves, picking out any insects or stray blades of grass you may have inadvertently cut and tip the leaves into a bowl. Pour on enough boiling water to cover the nettles and leave for a couple of minutes. Fish out the wilted leaves, which will no longer sting and squeeze out the excess moisture. Apart from Nettle Soup, which everyone seems to have heard of but I think is slightly overrated, you can use nettles to make a hedgerow pesto, green soda bread or as a replacement for spinach in many recipes. Or try the Nettle Scone recipe below. Eat them warm, spread generously with butter.

Go on, live a little dangerously.

Nettle Scones

 

What do you do with a bag full of nettle leaves? Use this simple recipe to make a batch of delicious Cheese and Nettle Scones. Forage, cook, eat

To make Nettle Scones:

225g plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Pinch of salt

60g butter, cubed

Tops of 7 or 8 nettles wilted and drained as above

1 tablespoon of chopped chives

40g strong cheddar cheese cubed or grated

2 dessertspoons plain yoghurt

Milk

Put the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and rub in the butter.

Chop the nettles and add to the bowl with the chives and cheese.

Stir in the yoghurt and enough milk to bring the mixture together in a soft but not sticky dough. Tip out the dough onto a floured surface and quickly pat into a round about 4 cms thick. Cut into 4 (or 6) wedges and put them close together on a lightly greased baking sheet.

Brush the tops with milk and bake 220C for about 15 minutes when they should be risen and golden. Wrap in a tea towel and transfer to a wire tray.

Best eaten warm.

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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!

 

NETTLE BREAD


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