How to make the perfect nettle soup – recipe
The first time I made nettle soup, it was edible, but underwhelming, leading me to the conclusion that, though I was glad one could eat one of the few edible wild foods in abundance locally, I wouldn’t be rushing to repeat the experience while I could still afford to buy greens. Yet the enthusiasm of others for this stinging weed unsettled me: could it be that I, rather than the poor old nettle, was at fault?
Reader, it seems it could. Having given the soup a second, third and sixth and seventh chance this week, I must concede that my fellow food writers are not, as I’d cynically assumed, lying through their teeth when they liken the stuff to spinach. The notorious nettle has a similarly iron-rich, slightly minerally flavour – indeed, as one of the first plants to emerge after the winter, it was much prized as a tonic by our forerunners on these islands, held to purify the blood and ensure good health in the months ahead. Not only are nettles a decent source of vitamins and minerals, they’re also surprisingly tasty. You just have to know how to handle them.
First things first: grab your gloves and keep them close. It’s all too easy to assume that picking denudes the nettle of its sting, but I can tell you from bitter experience that, even after two days in the fridge, the bastards can still get you as you reach past them for the milk. (Thankfully, cooking does rob them of their terrible power.)
At the time of writing, the nettles near where I live were so small and weedy that I had to put out an appeal for reinforcements (grateful thanks to Vivienne Hambly for the bagful from her allotment, and to Rumbullion and Crocodon Farms for sending a box all the way from Cornwall) – but by the time this piece is published, spring should have sprung in earnest, making this the very best time of year to eat the things. As the season goes on, most authorities agree that the plants will become too robust to make pleasant eating, though Josceline Dimbleby claims that she has made nettle soup “at the end of the summer with some rather tired nettles from my overgrown garden, and it still tasted good” – so perhaps you’ll just have to be more selective over what you pick, and favour the younger, fresher tops. Basically, if it looks green and tender, fetch the gloves.
Some recipes call for the leaves alone, such as that frompioneering forager Roger Phillips’s Wild Food and the late chef Alastair Little (who, in Keep it Simple, writes of his inordinate fondness for “the first young nettle of spring, dazzlingly green and with a unique, peppery flavour”). Others stick the whole lot in, and Valentina Harris, to my surprise, uses just the stems in her Italian Regional Cooking. Apparently, in the Molise region, “they consider young nettle stalks to have a flavour superior to that of asparagus!” – and I’m surprised to discover that, once I’ve amassed enough to make an eighth of her recipe (which takes a frankly astonishing amount of raw vegetation), they are indeed worth the effort, with a delicate, juicy texture and a green, slightly petrolly flavour that reminds me of rock samphire. It’s very good, but it’s not the nettle soup that I’m seeking.
Now that I know how nice they can be, however, it seems silly to discard those stems, but I strongly recommend going through your nettles before washing, removing any thicker, dryer, tougher stalks, because these will cause problems for all but the toughest of blenders, and won’t add anything to the finished dish in any case.
The oldest recipe I try, from Florence White’s 1932 collection Good Things in England, and with an attribution that implies it may be Victorian, boils the nettles for 10 minutes before adding them to the soup base, while Little blanches his for just 60 seconds. Chef Paul Gayler’s book Great Homemade Soups sits squarely in the middle of that, at five minutes, while Phillips just adds the leaves raw to the soup, where they simmer for a quarter of an hour.
The problem with the last approach is that it’s hard to judge how long your particular plants will take to wilt, so it’s better to make sure everything else is cooked before adding them – plus, such lengthy cooking turns everything a sad, sludgy colour. Pre-cooking them means you can shock the leaves in cold water to keep them as green as possible, and also chop them to make life easier for your blender, removing any remaining woody bits in the process (the stems have a remarkable talent for wrapping themselves around blades, but unless you have a great deal of patience, I wouldn’t bother passing the soup through a fine sieve afterwards. Even after determined blending, I lose most of the nettles I add to Gayler’s soup, and though the results taste good, I miss their slightly furry texture).
White’s recipe is the simplest, seasoned with just salt and pepper, but most others include alliums, mostly commonly onion, but also garlic for Gayler, who, like Little, sticks in a leek, too. The sweetness of sauteed onion is welcome, while the savoury piquancy of garlic lifts the soup without overpowering the flavour of the nettles themselves.
Harris’s recipe includes pancetta and tomatoes. Cured pork of some sort would be a good call with these ingredients, if you fancy it, but tomatoes, though welcome in her lighter, springier broth, would be too bright and acidic in my simpler, thicker, more soothing soup. The nutmeg is all my own, because its sweet warmth goes as well with the slightly ferrous-flavoured nettle as it does with spinach, but you could leave it out or, if you’re not a fan, substitute another herb or spice.
John Wright writes in the River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook that the keys to an excellent nettle soup “are potato – to give it body, and really good stock – to give it spirit. Without these, the wild food cynic’s worst suspicions of boiled weeds will be confirmed.” The starchy potato is, of course, a tried-and-tested bulker, while Gayler’s oatmeal yields a silkier texture, but, much to my surprise, my favourite base is White’s white sauce, thickened with butter and flour. The creamy consistency feels a natural fit with the slightly fuzzy nettle leaves, while the dairy’s bland flavour allows them to shine. (However, I have loosened my soup with a little of the stock preferred by Little and Gayler, both to give it an umami boost and to lessen the resemblance to creamed spinach, much as I love the stuff).
The milk means that there’s no need to add cream of any stripe to the finished dish, though it looks so pleasing against the green of the finished dish that you might like to anyway. Or pop in some stale bread fried in leftover bacon fat, as White recommends. Thrifty, warming and delicious: what more could you ask for at this time of year?
Perfect nettle soup
Prep 35 min (mostly spent on picking over the nettles)
Cook 25 min
About 500g young nettles, or older nettle tops (the first 5 or so leaves), picked over and tougher stems discarded
30g butter or oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 tbsp flour
500ml milk (plant-based, if necessary)
300ml chicken or vegetable stock
Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, using gloves, pick the leaves off the thicker main stems of the nettles – you can leave any spindly ones on or, if your nettles are very young, the whole thing.
Melt the butter in a second largish saucepan, then fry the onion and a pinch of salt, until soft and translucent.
Stir in the garlic and a good grating of nutmeg, leave to soften for another minute or so, then stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for another couple of minutes.
Gradually whisk in milk until you have a smooth paste, then add the rest, followed by the stock, and cook until the mix is roughly the thickness of double cream, rather than a standard white sauce.
Fill the sink (or a large bowl) with cold water, then tip the nettles into the pot of boiling water and blanch for about four minutes, until wilted and soft – slightly older plants may take longer, but the shorter the cooking time, the more vibrant the colour of your soup will be.
Scoop out the nettles with tongs or a slotted spoon, then plunge into the cold water to stop them cooking any further. Once the leaves are cool enough to handle, squeeze out as much water as possible and chop, removing any tough stalks as you go.
Add the nettles to the soup pot, then liquidise, adding a little more stock or milk if it’s too thick.
Gently reheat (do not let it boil), adjust the seasoning to taste, and serve.
If you’re a fellow nettle fan, how do you make your soup, and are there any other dishes you’d recommend adding them to? And what other wild foods should we be looking out for at this time of year?