Weather-wise it was first day of spring, with warm sun and a brisk wind from west. Many Lesser Celandine had flowered that morning and I was first to see them, Primroses too and just a sign of Earthnut leaves coming up. I set off in search of fresh nettles. I have a regular spot for this at lower edge of a field that gets sun but is protected from north and east by woodland. It's a good spot and I found that a colony of moles had set-up camp there since I last visited.
Its been such a mild winter in Cornwall this year that some of nettles were re-forming on last years stalks, but there were also many new growths, tiny little leaves just poking through. Yummy. Nettle soup is just my favourite. Get it early in spring because plants toughen up quickly, and mature plants can be dangerous to eat as 'stingers' don't break down as easily.
You can pick tiny nettle heads quite easily with scissors, then lift them into a container, using scissors as tongs. Cut them carefully, avoiding any discoloured leaves that might be 'frost caught'. They'll grow back again quickly and you can keep a harvest of fresh tops running into summer by regular soup collections.
Be careful where you gather nettle tops. Avoid fields that get sprayed, roadsides or other chemical contamination. Take them from a wild place that isn't interfered with.
Having written that I put them in a plastic bag because I knew they would be home in minutes, simmering on stove, but normally an open basket of some kind is better for gathering wild food. It's quite easy to pick nettle tops and prepare them without being stung at all.
This recipe is from one of my favourite books - 'Wild Food' by Roger Phillips - a real treasure. I can never enthuse about this book enough. I have made this recipe about a dozen times and each one has a subtle difference based on condition of nettles. One time formic acid was so active soup was actually fizzy ! The fresh nettle soup has a deep and layered flavour, yet delicate. There's something intensely 'green' about it, you can feel it doing you good ( a serotonin hit) - but there's also a sort of 'gamey' flavour.
You've just got to try this one for yourselves.
All you need is about a bagful of nettle tops, about size of a football, for four people. Also: A large Onion, garlic cloves to taste, 2 or 3 potatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper, a stock cube (chicken or vegetable) and some cream.
Firstly, prepare nettles. Wash and drain them. Go through them carefully separating stalk from fresh leaf. You can do this easily by picking them up by main stalk, compressing leaf stalks together and cutting across tops with scissors.
Then chop up potatoes, onion and garlic and fry them with a splash of olive oil and a pinch of butter (OK I like to get messy). When onion starts to soften and potato is forming a slight crust, chuck in nettles, give them a quick whisk around with a spatula. Then add about a litre of boiled water and your stock cube. Mix it all up and bubble it for about 12 minutes, or until potato is soft.