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24 April 2024

The wild, herby comforts of nettle soup

The lip-tingling foraged food is an ancient reminder of our right to live off the land.

By Pen Vogler

Provided you have good gardening gloves and long sleeves, what could better herald spring than the soft, herby taste of nettle soup? There’s a recipe in They Can’t Ration These (reissued by those erudite magpies Persephone Books) written by Vicomte de Mauduit, a slightly mysterious French aviator and cookery writer who disappeared when the Nazis captured France. David Lloyd George (who had, genuinely, known De Mauduit’s father) championed the book to a wartime population that needed a reunion with the “old forgotten kinship with nature” for off-ration food, drink and healing.

Do we need a French aristocrat to tell us how to make nettle soup? An ancient standby for the poor as they waited for the spring crops of leaves, surely it is part of some deep, atavistic British memory? Nettles love the high phosphorous of human habitation – urine and bones. It seems natural that we should take advantage of the mineral goodness they give us in return, if they can be safely picked and deposited in the pot, where the stinging hairs can be neutralised by heat.

However, foraged foods, such as nettles, leave surprisingly little trace in the written record of these islands. They were part of the physic garden in Anglo-Saxon times, when every remedy began with the phrase “Take this wort…” (meaning leaf or vegetable of almost any kind). The distinction between cultivated and wild plants was much fuzzier in pre-modern vegetable gardening and some “simples” – herbal remedies using one plant – we now know to be toxic.

As untidy edible greens became categorised as weeds, they were ushered out of the stiff parterres of the 17th century. A gardening manual for the nobility of 1728 finds nettles a place in a more naturalistic landscape, recommending them for a “spring pottage” (soup), which cleansed and sweetened the blood. Dr William Fernie, a Victorian medical herbalist, also records an old idea that the nettle was beneficial for blood disorders, helping to regulate or prevent the bleeding of consumption, or easing women’s “monthly flow”.

If nettle soup was a regular food for the poor in extremis, people largely kept quiet about it. Other wild food populates the pages of herbals and books of “simples” – perhaps because there was less shame in using the hedgerow as a pharmacy than a greengrocer.

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There are glimpses of nettle soup as a nutritious food, though. Captain Cook, sailing down the north-east coast of Russia, was relieved when the ice and snow disappeared and nettle tips, celery and wild garlic could be gathered and boiled with “portable soup” and wheat for an “excellent and salutary breakfast” for the crew (plus birch sap, which was mixed with the men’s brandy rations). Nettles also have a long-standing relationship with cheese. The leaves offered an (albeit unreliable) alternative to rennet, used to curdle milk, and fresh cheese could be matured in the leaves’ cooling, tangy embrace, as with Cornish Yarg to this day.

Perhaps nettle soup needed its medicinal reputation to give it a gloss of respectability when food was truly scarce. Perhaps it just wasn’t very nice. Without good stock and something – potato or celeriac – to boost the texture and soften the metallic tang, it can taste, as the forager John Wright warns, “like boiled army blankets”. The viscount’s recipe uses a bit of wartime bacon fat and flour to thicken it and the soup also takes kindly to milk or cream.

Children seem to have escaped any taboos around foraging for food. The imps of Lark Rise to Candleford gathered “bread and cheese” – the country name for the young shoots of hawthorn – in spring and blackberries in autumn. They ate, wrote Flora Thompson, “not so much because they were hungry as from habit and relish of the wild food”.

This is why, today, we snip nettle tops, grapple with wild garlic pesto, and turn blackberries into crumbles. For many urbanites, we have no connection left with the land, but foraging helps to give us one. There is no more intimate relationship in our food lives than eating something; and lip-tingling, grassy nettle soup is a reminder that we, too, have a right to the meadow, the forest and the hedgerow.

[See also: Easter is not the right time to eat lamb]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger