Once in a moment of supreme confidence, the sun warming my back and a light breeze whispering in my ear, I grasped a nettle firmly with my bare hand. As the old English rhyme goes,
Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains
'Tis the same with common natures:
Use 'em kindly, they rebel;
But be rough as nutmeg-graters,
And the rogues obey you well.
- Aaron Hill (1685-1750)
Perhaps this rhyme holds true for soft, often rained-upon English nettles; or perhaps I, quite simply, lacked mettle. Either way, I'm sorry to report that I yelped, and spent the next half hour picking practically invisible stinging hairs out of my palm. So much for English folklore.
Another piece of folklore is that dock leaves will calm a nettle's sting; and where nettles grow, so will you find dock. I'm not sure, however, that English dock grows in Australia, and indigenous dock is rarely to be seen near a nettle patch; - and I don't think it works anyway.
Thus I advise you to pick your nettles carefully, with rubber gloves. At this time of year, when I'm going near my favourite nettle patch (that is, at kinder drop off), I have been known to slip my gardening gloves into my bag ready to glean. I may look eccentric, but picking nettles in a public place has certainly led to many interesting conversations; most recently, such a chat led someone to refer me to a prolific prickly pear cactus leaning over a nearby laneway, which I will check out this summer with gratitude.
As I was preparing this, I left a bowl of dusty nettles soaking in the sink. My cousin wandered in and plucked some out for a nibble, unaware. I gasped but, lucky her, she picked out young shoots and felt the sting only as a little heat in her mouth. The stings dissolve with cooking, but if you are making this soup, you would do well to advise any visiting cousins to keep their hands to themselves until all is cooked.
As for why you would make it, let me list the reasons: local, sustainable, economical, useful; also, nutritional. Nettles are so full of vitamins and minerals that several saints – Celtic Christian and Tibetan Buddhist – survived on nothing but nettle soup for many years; you might as well get some of that goodness for yourself.
Nettles do have a very strong green flavour, which I and my cousin rather like, but others may find it a little challenging. I have discovered, however, that if there is a fresh banana coconut cake cooling on the bench, young children will demolish their bowl of soup with scarcely a demurral, so desperate are they for some cakey goodness. A word to the wise...
- at least 500g stinging nettles
Don a pair of rubber gloves, and strip the nettle leaves from the stalks. Wash well in several changes of water.
Peel and chop the potatoes. Place them into a bowl containing a cup of water so that (a) they don't brown and (b) you get a starchy water to thicken the soup.
Warm the olive oil in a soup pot. Add the onion, and cook gently until it is translucent. Add the celery and garlic, and cook until soft. Throw in the potatoes and their starchy water, and the stock. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are very soft. Add the nettles and cook for a few more minutes.
Remove the soup from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Blend in batches until it is velvety. Check for salt. Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, or a dollop of yogurt, or just as is.
Most recipes for nettle and potato soup follow similar lines. I adapted this from a recipe in Tobie Puttock's Italian Local, which includes the excellent suggestion of using the potato water to thicken the soup.
(Melbourne region: nettles, potatoes, celery. Geelong: onion. Grampians: olive oil. Gippsland: yogurt. No more specific than Victoria: garlic, butter, salt. Mixed sources: chicken stock.)