Editor’s Note: Vintage Pacific NW revisits some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food (by Nancy Leson, Providence Cicero, and chefs Greg Atkinson and Kathy Casey), gardening (by Valerie Easton and Ciscoe Morris), fitness (from former Fit for Life writer Nicole Tsong), architecture (from former NW Living writer Lawrence Kreisman), wine (from local guru Andy Perdue) and more.
Originally published April 3, 2005
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
I GUESS MOST people encounter stinging nettles as children, but my own introduction to them came relatively late in life. It was during those halcyon days before there were children under our care, and my wife and I were free to keep fairly reckless hours. We both worked in restaurants then, and our “evenings” often began at midnight, when we got off work.
One night, after our usual shifts, we went to the home of a co-worker. In the carefree spirit of the party there, I abandoned my shoes and wandered outside. When I stumbled into a patch of stinging nettles, I had no idea what had hit me.
“I think I’ve stepped in a bee’s nest,” I reported back inside. “Either that, or I’ve been bitten by a snake.” Our host, another cook, assured me that I would neither die nor be subject to any extreme medical procedures. “You’ve stepped in some nettles,” he said.
“I’ve done what?” I wanted to know. “What are nettles, and what are they doing out there?”
“They’re plants,” he said, “and they’re edible.”
Within days, I had wrought my revenge upon the terrible things. Within hours, my menu, printed daily in the kitchen of a little French cafe in Friday Harbor, boasted Nettle Soup. That was in the dim recesses of the 1980s, but I was hardly the first chef to offer nettle soup on my menu.
Nettles, known in botanical circles as Urtica urens, have been used in soups and stews since prehistoric times. But the common or “stinging” nettle is not a vegetable you’re likely to find at your local supermarket. Even the trendiest stores with the broadest selection of culinary herbs probably won’t stock this gourmet green.
It’s not that nettles are rare or hard to find; rather, it’s because they are as common as weeds. Many people, in fact, regard nettles as the worst kind of weeds. Not only do they spring up in places where they weren’t planted, but they also are terrorists of sorts, with a very nasty habit of injecting irritating compounds into anyone who rubs them the wrong way.
In “A Modern Herbal,” Maude Grieve describes the stinging agent in nettles as “venom, an acrid fluid, the active principle of which is said to be bicarbonate of ammonia.” The late Alan Davidson wrote that it is “formic acid which gives them their sting.” And in his book “On Food and Cooking,” Harold McGee writes that nettles are “notorious for their stinging hairs, which have a brittle silicate tip and a gland that supplies a cocktail of irritant chemicals, including histamine, for injection when skin meets needles”; hardly appetizing.
Certainly, nettles in their natural state do pack a wallop, and most people, once bitten, twice shy, avoid them. But like other “bad” things, nettles have attracted a certain following. Cooked or dried, or rendered into an alcohol-based tincture, nettles lose their sting, and, like wayward souls given a little attention, they become perfectly charming and downright useful. For centuries, the fibers of nettles have been employed as a substitute for linen and cotton. (During World War I, the armies of Europe were clothed in nettle uniforms.) In homeopathic circles, an extract made from the plants is used as medicine to treat asthma and skin irritations.
And in gourmet circles, nettles are the sine qua non of spring greens. A hardy plant, quick to sprout even from frozen ground, nettles are rich in minerals and vitamin C, so they earned a reputation in medieval times as a spring tonic. And today, devotees of nettles gladly will risk a little sting to get their annual bowl of nettle soup.
According to one report, Viscountess Ridley encourages English country people to reserve a corner of the garden for nettles, because their nectar is the preferred food for several of her favorite species of butterflies. To encourage the gardeners, she gives a recipe for nettle soup. “Half a pound is a lot of small leaves,” writes Lady Ridley, “but it is fun to do, in season, once a year.”
As for my wife and I, we still have the occasional encounter with nettles. But these days, the meetings occur during daylight hours. And typically, we’re armed with shoes, gloves and a couple of able-bodied sons who have eaten nettle soup every spring of their young lives.
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