Every year, in the town of Marshwood in Dorset, thousands of people come together to witness the marvel that is the World Stinging Nettle Eating Championships. Displaying an impressive combination of speed, skill and sheer determination, participants pluck and eat as many leaves as possible from 60cm of nettle stalks, with the winner being whoever strips and consumes the most stinging nettle leaves within the fixed time.
There is presumably an art to this, as the pain that must result from eating raw stinging nettles must be too great to be worth any prize. Yet while I wouldn’t recommend that anyone test the possible attractions of raw nettle leaves, the nettle plant itself can nevertheless make an interesting (if not slightly peculiar) addition to the kitchen.
Foraging for wild ingredients has become more and more popular in recent years, amidst the increased desire to opt for natural, locally-grown foodstuffs, over their artificially-produced, long-haul counterparts.
Fungi, hedge berries, seeds and saplings have all proved valuable resources for the canny cook, but weeds, although largely overlooked in this respect, are beginning to represent another alternative to the usual repertoire. This should hardly be seen as a new phenomenon however. Humans have cultivated and used plants and herbs for gastronomic and medicinal purposes across time, weeds being no exception to this. Studies have also shown them to be high in nutritional value, a good source of calcium, iron, potassium, protein, vitamin A, C and folic acid. They are also completely free.
Still not convinced by the prospect of chewing on a raw dandelion? Maybe dandelion fritters sound more appealing – that is, coating the yellow flowers in batter and shallow-frying them like tempura. Dandelions can be made into tea, their leaves can be added to salads, while the stems can be collected and boiled or steamed to make what are known as ‘dandelion greens’. (The trick is to pick the leaves and stems before the flowers have bloomed, as they can taste bitter otherwise.)
Less known, yet equally ubiquitous are cleavers, or “goose grass”. These are the long, spindly plants that are covered in sticky burs and hook themselves onto certain fabrics. Like the dandelion, the leaves and stem of the cleaver plant can be cooked as a leaf vegetable, but the globular fruits of cleavers can also be dried, roasted, and used as a substitute for coffee, as they contain a much lower amount of caffeine.
Another alternative weed is wild garlic. This grows most abundantly during late spring, especially around May, in woodland areas or damp, shaded undergrowth. It’s easy to find on account of its strong, garlic smell and wide, green leaves, and is usually found in large clumps. Either add it to salads or use it as a replacement for shop-bought garlic.
And what about using nettles? Although they do not automatically come to mind as obvious ingredients, nettles are already found in a variety of products, such as nettle tea, nettle cordial and speciality cheeses like Yarg and Gouda. They can also be steamed or boiled, or else made into puree, pesto or soup. Soaking nettles in water removes the stinging chemicals from the leaves.
Just a word of caution however, before you dash out to collect and cook in abundance; some people may be allergic to certain spores present in weeds, so try just a little bit as a test before tucking in. Also, make sure that you pick your weeds from an unsprayed area, free from herbicides, and that you wash them thoroughly before cooking. Finally, always be certain that you have identified the correct weed – some plants have poisonous counterparts that you will definitely want to avoid, so only ever use what you recognise!