Nettle recipes are some of the oldest in the world, predated only by beer. This vibrant soup has a long history, and is packed with nutrients to give you a spring boost.
Anyone whose formative years were shaped by watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks will have nettle soup etched into their imagination as the witchy, unfamiliar brew that horrifies the evacuee children, who have grown up on an urban diet of fried food. It’s easy to see how this vivid green soup might have become associated with “witchcraft”, not least because the nettle's sting has caused it to become a symbol of protection.
Nettles are imbedded in folklore. In the Hans Christian Anderson story The Twelve Wild Swans the princess spins protective coats for her eleven brothers from nettle fibres, in order to break a spell. The Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm suggests nettles as a protection against “flying venom” and “elf shot”.
Turning nettles into soup is an ancient practice, whose history in Britain stretches back for at least 3,000 years. There is often wisdom behind the culinary choices of our ancient ancestors and their choice to stew the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is no exception. It is a plentiful and wide-spread plant that is packed with nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamins A and B. The nettle is usually well-recognised for its itching, burning sting, reflected in its name, which is derived from the Anglo Saxon “noedl” meaning “needle”, while the Latin “urtica” means “to burn”. The nettle’s sting evolved to protect it from grazing animals and is delivered by tiny hollow hairs or trichomes, which break off and inject the skin with various acids and neurotransmitters. Our bronze-age ancestors likely understood that stewing or boiling nettles is one of the most thorough ways to deactivate the trichomes and make the nettle safe to eat.
Like all nettle leaf dishes, nettle soup is one to be made in the spring when the leaves are young and tender. Later in the season, once the nettle has flowered, it will produce cystoliths — microscopic rods of calcium carbonate — which can cause urinary tract problems.
When preparing the nettles for this dish, aim to use the leaves and tender tips. You can use scissors to help prepare the nettles but you will still need to wear gloves. Surgical gloves aren’t usually thick enough to protect you, so either double up or use washing up gloves. If you’ve picked them early enough in the season, you can get away with leaving in some of the more tender stems, as the nettles will be blitzed. Be warned that the stems do get woody quickly, however, and because it is a fibrous plant (fabrics made from nettle fibre have been found in ancient burials), older parts may become unpleasant to swallow.
500g fresh nettles (this is around 3/4 of a standard carrier bag)
50g butter/vegan butter
1 large onion, diced
4 sticks of celery
4 cloves of garlic
2 medium potatoes, diced and cooked
1 litre vegetable stock
40g crème fraîche, to serve
Salt and pepper
- While wearing gloves, prepare the nettles. Remove the leaves and tips and discard the stalks. Rinse thoroughly in cold water.
- Melt the butter in a pan and fry the onion, carrot, celery and garlic until soft. Pour in the vegetable stock, add the cooked potato and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the nettles and boil for a few minutes until they have wilted.
- Using a hand blender, blend the soup until smooth. Season to taste with the salt and pepper and serve with a dollop of crème fraîche/vegan alternative.
Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!