This peculiar phrase, which recommends tackling problems decisively, arises from the belief that nettles will not sting if they are seized firmly and swiftly. This presses their stinging hairs flat, it is true, but you still have to let go at some point and the chance of wrestling a load of leaves into a plastic bag without brushing some part of your hand against them is very slim. I really would wear gloves.
There is a point to this seemingly masochistic exercise: nettles are very good to eat and also easy to identify, which can be an issue with some foraged foods. It’s probably the first plant most of us are taught to recognise as children and even if we aren’t we soon work it out for ourselves, as we limp home covered with the hot bumps of nettle-rash.
The plant is quick to appear in spring and is ubiquitous, appearing wherever people live (or have lived – patches of nettles still thrive on the sites of long-abandoned settlements). They appreciate the nitrogen-enriched soil that we, and our animals, provide. It’s always been a welcome hedgerow green and in former times was also a source of both dye and fibre for making cloth. You get a sense of this fibrousness whenever you try to snap a mature plant: the stems tend to split lengthways and twist rather than break cleanly. As an added bonus, nettles can be used like comfrey to make a liquid fertilizer for garden plants.
Nettles are very nutritious, containing good amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as iron and an impressive amount of protein for a green vegetable. They have their own distinctive flavour but it’s roughly like spinach, for which they can be substituted in the kitchen. When they are served as a standalone vegetable I actually find their powerfully green healthiness a little too full-on but I love using them as an ingredient. I add them to frittatas and make nettle soup, using good stock and cream. Whatever the dish, I wilt the nettles first; this needs barely more water than is left on them after rinsing. The act of cooking disarms the sting but wear gloves up to this point.
The tender tops of young springtime nettles are the best. They get coarser and less palatable as the year goes on, though strimming or mowing in summer will result in more tender, usable regrowth. Avoid picking near busy roads or from places where you suspect dogs may have passed … and paused. Wherever you get them from, give them a thorough wash anyway, to make sure they are free from invertebrates. Steamed caterpillars are always off-putting.
In other news, the soil has warmed up sufficiently for direct sowing to start in earnest. Over the past week I have sown parsnips, carrots, beetroot and salsify. All the Jerusalem artichokes have been planted and most of the potatoes and I have a bag of onion sets to put in tomorrow. There’s suddenly an awful lot to do.