At some point we all must have felt the sharp sting and lingering unpleasant tingle of the common nettle Urtica dioica (or indeed the urgency to find dock leaves to quell your little one’s shrieks of anguish!). Now’s your chance to take revenge by cooking up some young nettle leaves into a tasty soup packed with vitamins.
Spring is officially here and like the start of autumn it’s a time that yields lots of wild food. For a really low effort wild dish you can simply pick some of the new leaves from a beech tree (before the bitter tannins come in and make the leaves darker) and eat them raw in a salad. But a tasty, verdant nettle soup is well worth the extra half hour preparation.
The young leaves of nettles are better for soup, so cast your eyes to the ground in a place where you saw nettles growing last year. The sting is no less potent in young nettles so take some sturdy gloves (especially if you've got little helpers!) and a bag to carry your pickings. Once the leaves go in hot water the sting is neutralised.
You need a good half carrier bag to make a decent amount of soup for four.
There are lots of variants of nettle soup recipes. This is one I made and enjoyed.
½ carrier bag of young fresh nettle leaves
A large finely chopped white onion
1 litre of vegetable or chicken stock
A large carrot
A large potato (or one pound of potatoes)
A pinch of nutmeg
Some double cream
Get a heavy bottomed pan and melt the butter. Throw in your chopped onion with some salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Lid it and let it sweat on a lowish heat for 5-7 mins until softened.
Chop the carrot and potato into small chunks and add to the pan along with your thoroughly washed nettles (unless you want a ‘nettle and minibeast soup’) and pour in the litre of stock.
Bring to a simmer and cook until the root veg is soft, it should take about 15 mins. Then take the pan off the heat.
When it’s cooled a bit use a hand blender to puree the soup then taste it and add more seasoning if needed.
Once served up in a bowl pour in a dab of double cream for extra richness and tuck in with some bread.
I’ll concede that most of the flavour comes from the other ingredients in this soup, the nettles are a bit like spinach; subtle flavour but lots of goodness. It’s also really gratifying to eat food you’ve collected yourself.
About nettles in nature
Nettles can sometimes be considered a weed and grow well in places with artificially enriched soil. This makes them an indicator species for high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that can be bad news for rarer, more fragile plants.
However they are fantastic for insects and you will find a wide verity of minibeasts that rely on them including butterflies like the small tortoiseshell and red admiral as their larvae feed on the leaves. The aphids that nettles attract are good for ladybirds and small birds like blue tits and when they go to seed in late summer they provide lots of food for seed-eating birds.