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April 15, 2011

13-4-11 Nettle Soup

13-4-11 Nettle Soup

Making use of the recent bright days, Spring-clearing the garden, Herself does a dogged job of weeding and clearing and those bits that require skill and judgement, buying in and planting out new shrubs and flowers, pruning or uprooting the old. Winter leaves are hoovered off the gravelled stretches, path-slabs swept.
My contributions are the broad-brush unskilled tasks: shifting barrowloads of undistributed gravel from the back of the house to the gravel-beds, cajoling the mower up and down the lawn through the damp and mossy turfy tufts, hoiking up deep-rooted defunct shrubs, tackling the burgeoning nettle-beds…
Herself and I stand in mutual puzzlement at our respective patience for her time in the garden and mine the kitchen, and about half a garden-refuse sack into nettle clearance I remembered my first encounter with Nettle Soup in my Foundation Year of art college, served by Mary Wandrausch, a ceramics tutor at Farnham who specialised in trad English slipware technique and who rented rooms in her Hardyesque farmhouse to students.
Mary lived like a back-to-the-land hippy – often barefoot, kaftan-clad and rattling with chunky handmade bead necklaces –  but she was clearly from an older honourable tradition of bohemianism. She’d been tutored in life-drawing by Mervyn Peake (‘We all lusted after Mervyn’) and reminisced cheerfully about days spent nude on remote Greek beaches, before the islands were on the standard tourist map.
At the meal table she would place a hand on your thigh as she turned to share some erudite factoid or salacious aside. She didn’t linger; it wasn’t creepy, though you did wonder whether at some point she might fall upon you like a big cat and haul you off to her boudoir. Though she was chronologically decades apart from us, she was an exotic earth-spirit and her appetite for the sensual gave the prospect of a pounce an element of intrigue. If you were to have your Older Woman experience, she would certainly have provided a memorable one, so there was probably a current of suppressed wishful-thinking in the air. In reality it remained a matter of conjecture whether the memory would be more terrifying or instructive on balance; both, probably, and awfully good fun, my dear.
So… my memory is of a twilight Summer evening warm enough for open doors to admit birdsong from the surrounding meadow and woodland, interior light dim enough to call for candles at the scrubbed wood farmhouse table and nettle soup with tear-apart homemade bread from slip-glaze patterned tableware.
I don’t really recall anything very much about the soup except that it seemed very Mary to harvest whatever was local and seasonal and to know a traditional recipe to make it edible. Another memory-snapshot has her receiving a puffball fungus the size of your head brought back by another friend as a trophy from a woodland walk, which she greeted with the delight and attention an extravagant bouquet might envy. It arrived at table soon after, sautéed in butter and dusted with nutmeg and fresh-cut herbs.
Given the company and the setting and the contrast with my home-life in commuter dormitory Woking, the fact that I found myself eating soup made from nettles was a mere contributory detail.
Slow-forward nearly four decades and I’m grubbing out and piling up a stack of stingers in the garden and – Old Gods Bless Thee, Mary Wandrausch – I’m again prompted to think about preparing the tetchy leaves for the table.
On the nutritional properties of the leaf, this from
Healing Wise, by the splendidly-named Susun Weed: “Very high calcium, magnesium; high iron, potassium, zinc, Vitamin B’s and A; niacin, protein, vitamin C, D and K. Excellent for the liver, low back, and anemia.”
However, although I can suggest how to prepare a soup, it’s a method rather than a recipe and don’t get too excited. You’d expect all that aggressive uric acid to bring a tart zing to the dish but what you get is spinachy colour and texture and a flavour you might expect from grass-cuttings (don’t try these as a substitute; cows’ complicated digestive tracts are made from sterner stuff than ours).
So, for a mineral and fibre-rich soup in which the headline ingredient’s main contribution is its novelty…
First, carefully uproot enough nettle stems to fill a plastic supermarket carrier bag and reflect that already you score recycling-points.
Like spinach, nettles reduce to a green slurry when boiled or steamed, so don’t stint yourself on quantity.
It’s a good idea to tip the whole stems into a sink of water and stir them around with a gloved hand. It gives them a rinse and softens the leaves a little, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’ve capitulated and that they aren’t still waiting for an opportunity to get you. Wear gloves while you pick the leaves off the stems – you can pinch off the top cluster – and drop them into a colander to drain.
Now the work begins to get as much flavour into the dish as you can. it’ll have to fight its way through the nettles later, so there are no fixed quantities; it’s all ‘to taste’.
My experiment began with finely-diced potato, onion and steamed carrot fried in oil in the bottom of the soup-pan; garlic, salt and black pepper added later and then a cup or two of water ready for a couple of veg stock cubes and some All Purpose Seasoning I found in an Asian supermarket.
By this stage I was still expecting the nettles to have some kind of distinctive flavour, but you can pile in as much intensity as you like at this stage. Chinese 5-spice, or Lebanese 7-spice, or Jerk seasoning – if you experiment with this soup you might try a madras curry paste at this stage and a quantity of chick-peas after the next to create a saag-chana dall variation.
Now add a quantity of water, enough to douse the nettle leaves. Empty them in carefully and tamp them down with a wooden spoon. When they’ve all wilted into the stock, the sting is gone and it’s time to apply the blending wand. I added some quark and milk to make cream of nettle soup and we discovered recently that leftover cooked basmati rice under the blender gives a good low-fat cream effect.
That’s pretty much it. Unlike wild garlic dishes, where the leaves have a distinctive, delicate flavour which repays the care taken to preserve it, nettle soup scores high on nutrition and worthiness but we didn’t rush out to the garden again for another crop of delicious weeds.

  1. Which was better, the memory of the old soup or the taste of the new one, freshly created?
    Reading this post, my mind slips back to the early, early 70’s and another concert at Eltham Well Hall in the open air theatre, on a cool summer evening. And to something else you can do with nettles:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TeFzyEpcg0

    Comment by Sue Jones — April 15, 2011 @ 1:38 pm
  2. Good question. The Proustian blast of nostalgia is intense but not very detailed. It would be strange to be back in that room now, no doubt refurnished and refurbished, to see what if anything might be added to that sensory snapshot.
    The soup experiment was definitely less memorable than the soup as incidental detail.
    Your recall of a particular concert is I imagine a much more common experience: who you were as much as where you were at the time. Richard Neville in his counterculture survey ‘Playpower” noted that people were much less likely to keep diaries when they had record collections to conjure up these moments.

    Comment by admin — April 16, 2011 @ 4:42 pm
  3. My memories of books, songs and various posessions often come tagged with where and who I was when I read/heard/aquired them. In this case, the song came home from the concert in my head, was enjoyed at another concert – the same place, the same performer – the next year, and as far as I know it was never heard again except as something I would sing to myself (having memorised two of the verses reasonably accurately, along with the basic melody). But I never tried to play it, and would have forgotten it completely by now (almost forty years on) except that anything remotely concerning nettles tends to bring it onto the internal turntable. Having found the song on YouTube, thanks to you, I have now figured out a simple version in my own style, and added it to the small guitar’s repertoire. Thanks, Graham – I needed a new tune.

    Comment by Sue Jones — April 16, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

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