This week is Nettle Awareness Week in the UK. Only in the UK could a week be devoted to the glory of the weed that has caused more children to cry than any other, that has caused more adults to curse. I liked the darker side that celebrity cook and food writer and herb specialist, Sophie Grigson, gave to the celebration. She sees it as a clarion call to take our revenge on the nettle by reducing it to soup and, as we sup, to cry “Got you, you bastard!”
So, here are three recipes for nettle soup that take the sting out of the weed. The first is one for all those aristocratic nettles that refuse to be cowed. The second is a common or garden recipe that will work for all nettles, and the third is the recipe that I concocted this morning out of ingredients in my store cupboard. All recipes are gluten free, and mine is dairy free.
All recipes begin with the instruction “First pick your nettles” … In my case this involved the poignant use of Twiglet’s basket, lined with a tea towel, and an odd pair of industrial gloves that had at various times been used whilst painting the fence and tending the bonfire if the residue on the gloves was anything to go by. One is supposed to pick only the freshest, juiciest leaves from the top of the plant. The aristocratic version of the nettle soup recipe requires you to remove the leaves from the stalk, but I did not do this and can vouch for it not being necessary. I filled half a basket with the nettle tips, then rinsed them (having substituted my dirty gloves for a pair of plastic bags since I do not possess washing up gloves). Now my nettles were ready to use.
To amuse you whilst you consider whether you wish to go and harvest your own nettles, I thought I would tell you some of the more positive attributes of the dastardly plants.
First, they are a haven for insects, and butterflies in particular. It is the stinging hairs that account for the nettle’s attraction because these prevent almost all grazing animals from venturing to eat them and leaves the insect larvae safe from harm. Small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are some of its most ardent fans. These butterflies belong to the Nymphalidae or Brush-footed group of butterflies whose shortened front pair of legs are covered in hairs like scales. Aphids overwinter in the nettlepatch and provide springtime food for ladybirds. Nettleseeds are late summer food for birds. One gardening tip is to plant nettles in a tub or pot, much like mint, and to position it, or sink it, into your border. That way the nettles do not spread, but they can attract to your garden the butterflies that love them.
Secondly, nettles are supposedly very good for you. In particular research has shown them to have effective anti-rheumatic/arthritic properties. Research carried out by the Plymouth Nettles Research Group (I joke not) of the University of Plymouth post-graduate Peninsula Medical School has shown that nettles can help relieve arthritis symptoms. They contain silica, particularly in the stringy stems, and it is this element that apparently helps joints. Research was reported in The Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Association (vol 355 of 2000). Dr. Colin Randall, of Plymouth University, studied 27 patients who had osteoarthritis, none of whom had used nettles before. They applied stinging nettle leaf for one week, then white deadnettle (which doesn’t sting) as a placebo. They reported that pain and disability were significantly lower after one week of treatment with the stinging nettle, and there was a reduction in their use of drugs.
Other medicinal claims include treatment of internal kidney, liver and bladder problems and to treat diabetes. Once you’ve read this you will never want to be without the nettle again:
Despite the unpleasantness of its sting, the nettle has been highly regarded in Europe since at least antiquity as both a food and a medicine, with both the Greeks and the Romans using it for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. In the first century, Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen reported the leaf of the nettle had diuretic and laxative properties and was useful for asthma, pleurisy and spleen illnesses. By medieval times the stinging nettle was in common use throughout the continent, being used for treating rheumatism, arthritis, allergies and eczema, baldness, bladder infections, cough, bronchitis, bursitis, anemia, gingivitis, hives, laryngitis, gout, multiple sclerosis, tendonitis, premenstrual syndrome, prostate enlargement and sciatica. According to Nicolas Culpeper in the seventeenth century, the seeds of the nettle were thought to be beneficial in the treatment of bites from “mad dogs” or the stinging of “venomous creatures.”
Seeds were also used at that time as an antidote to poisonous herbs such as nightshade and henbane. In early American medicine, bandages soaked in a leaf and stem infusion were used to stop the bleeding of wounds. An account of this use was recorded by Dr. Francis P. Procher, a physician in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Nettle leaves were also recommended as a nutritious food and as a weight loss aid by the famous American plant forager and naturalist, Euell Gibbons.
For some purposes the leaf of the nettle was recommended, for some purposes the stem, for some purposes the seed, and for others the root, and accordingly the whole of the plant was utilised in traditional medicine and revered for its healing properties. It was also popular as a food in many countries and we know today that nettle is highly nutritive, being rich in chlorophyll, beta carotene, vitamins A, C, E and K, several of the B vitamins, tannins, volatile oils, flavonoids, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphates, and various other minerals, especially silica. The stinging nettle is a remarkable nutritional treasure and has often been compared very favourably to spinach.
Today nettle is recognised as having astringent, expectorant, galactagogue, tonic, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic, and diuretic properties, and is recommended for treating bone and joint conditions, inflammation and irritation of the urinary tract and for preventing urinary system gravel, whilst the diuretic action of the plant has been shown to significantly increase urine volume and can help to alleviate bladder infections. However, the most popular application of stinging nettle today is the use of the root for treating the symptoms of prostate enlargement or benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). This condition is hormonal in nature, caused by testosterone and the conversion of testosterone to the extremely potent dihydrotestosterone, a conversion which increases as men age. An excess of dihydrotestosterone causes pathological prostate growth. Estrogens also play a part as they too increase as men age and also stimulate prostate growth. These hormones travel around the body in a free state, as well as bound to proteins. One such protein is called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) and its role is to maintain a dynamic hormonal balance in the body. SHBG binds or attaches to hormones and carries them to different receptor sites on cell membranes throughout the body where they can be utilised in different ways. The effect it has depends on which hormone it binds to and which receptor site it is carried to. In the men estrogen and dihydrotestosterone bound to SHBG are usually carried to the receptor sites on the prostate gland and once there in excessive amounts it stimulates prostate tissue cells to divide and grow rapidly – resulting in BPH.
Some of the more recent research on BPH and stinging nettle indicates that the nettle root can interfere with or block a number these hormone-related chemical processes in the body that are implicated in the development of BPH. In clinical research, nettle has demonstrated the ability to stop the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (by inhibiting aromatase, an enzyme required for the conversion), as well as to directly bind to SHBG itself – thereby preventing SHBG from binding to other hormones. Other research also reveals that nettles can prevent SHBG that has already bound to a hormone from attaching to the receptor sites on the prostate, as well as to decrease the production of estrogens (estradiol and estrone) by inhibiting an enzyme required for their production. In summary, most of the intercellular processes required to trigger the prostate to grow new cells and enlarge seems to be inhibited by nettle root. Human and animal clinical studies have confirmed these effects and also demonstrated that nettle root works as well as the drug finasteride which is prescribed for BPH and is also better tolerated than the drug.
The effect of nettle root on dihydrotestosterone (DHT) levels has also made it a treatment for hair loss, as male pattern balding has often been linked to an excess of DHT, as has hair loss in women too. In folklore it was always believed that nettles were an effective treatment for baldness and modern science appears to validate this belief. Nettle root is also valuable as a source of lignans, a type of phytoestrogens, which have become more and more valued in recent years, and which accounts for its galactogogue property. Nettle root also contains a number of chemical compounds which appear to significantly stimulate the immune system.
Finally, when you are the only family left on this planet, you can use nettles to produce fibres that you can weave for clothes. The fibres are currently only used on a industrial scale in Japan, but they are capable of producing a linen-like fabric, albeit coarser. Hans Andersen’s fairytale, The Wild Swans, tells of the mute princess, Elisa, knitting nettle shirts to help her eleven brothers regain their human form after they have been turned into swans by the evil stepmother. But apparently nettle fibres were used for centuries in Scotland to produce fabric for tablecloths, and nettle fibres were even woven in Germany to produce uniforms for the army during the Second World War when cotton was hard to come by.
1 lb potatoes
½ lb young nettles
2 oz butter
1½ pts chicken or vegetable stock
sea salt & black pepper
4 tablespoons sour cream
Cook the peeled, chopped potatoes for 10 mins in salted water. Drain.
Wash & chop coarsely the nettles (Only pick the new, young tops,using gloves!)
Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the nettles and stew gently for a few minutes. Add the potatoes and heated stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes or until tender.
When all is soft, cool slightly & purée in a blender, adding seasoning and the sour cream.
½ carrier bag full of nettles, tops or young leaves
1 large or 2 medium onions, finely sliced
1 large carrot, chopped (optional)
2 celery sticks, chopped (optional)
1 large garlic clove, crushed (optional)
1 litre good chicken, fish or vegetable stock
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
3 tablespoons cooked rice or 3 rice cakes
2 tablespoons thick cream or crème fraiche
salt and freshly ground black pepperTo Garnish:
A little extra cream or crème fraiche
A small bunch of chives, chopped
A few sprigs of wild chervil or parsley, chopped
Pick over the nettles and wash them thoroughly. Discard only the tougher stalks, as the soup will be liquidised. Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the onion, plus the carrot, celery and garlic if using, until soft but not brown. Add the stock and pile in the nettles. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the nettles are tender. Season with salt and pepper, and with nutmeg if you wish. Puree the soup in a liquidiser with the cooked rice or rice cakes (you will probably have to do this in 2 batches). Return to a clean pan, stir in the cream and reheat, but do not let it boil. Check the seasoning, then serve, garnishing each bowl with a swirl of cream and a generous sprinkling of chopped herbs.
To serve cold:
An alternative is to serve this soup cold. After liquidising and adding the cream, pour the soup into a bowl and leave to cool, then transfer to the fridge for a couple of hours before serving. For accelerated cooling, fill a large basin or saucepan with ice cubes and water and place the bowl of soup in the iced water. Stir to chill, adding more ice cubes if the first batch melts. Stir well just before serving and ladle the soup out into bowls. Garnish each with a swirl of cream and a sprinkling of chopped chives and wild chervil.
This is the basic recipe for nettle and other ‘wild greens’ soups, including fat hen and chickweed. It will also freeze extremely well. For a variation mix the nettle leaves with watercress or Cos lettuce. The carrot and celery are optional but make the soup more robust and full-flavoured. You can also add a few fresh or frozen peas, to give sweetness and improve the texture. Using fish stock will give a more unusual taste. If using a stock cube the best ones are monosodium glutamate free. If you prefer you can use a medium potato to thicken the soup instead of the cooked rice (or cakes) – peel and dice it fairly small and add it just before adding the stock.
Nettle Soup is featured in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ‘River Cottage Cookbook’, published by Harper Collins, ISBN: 0002202042, price: 19.99
3. Nettle and Coconut Soup
A washing-up bowl of nettle tops
1 onion, chopped
250ml of orange juice
1 tin of coconut milk
1 tsp Marigold swiss vegetable bouillon powder (or clear vegetable or meat stock)
Olive oil for frying onion
In a large deep saucepan, fry the chopped onion on a medium heat until transparent and just beginning to brown. Add the rinsed nettles and cover saucepan. Sweat the nettles and onions together until the nettles have wilted and started to give out their juices. This will take about 10-15 minutes. Add the orange juice and the bouillon powder and bring to the boil. Add the coconut milk and some water (about 1/2 litre) and continue simmering for a further 10-15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Liquidize the soup and serve hot or chilled.