Some foods don’t have a real come-hitherness about them. Who was the bold soul to first slurp a raw oyster? Artichokes have thorns and stickers growing on every surface. Rhubarb is notorious for its super sour pucker power, and, if carelessly ingested, its leaves are quite capable of killing a foolhardy forager. The edible that really amazes me is the stinging nettle, also known as ‘devil’s leaf.’ In the field it appears to be just another innocuous weed. Brush up against it with bare skin, however, and that patch of unprotected epidermis instantly feels like it’s on fire.
The sting comes from formic acid, the same venom that is found in bee and ant stings, which is released when the tiny pointed hairs covering the leaves break off on being touched. The sensation is what gives the nettle its botanical name Urtica from the Latin word urere, which means ‘to burn.’ The term nettle derives from the Anglo-Saxon word noedl meaning ‘needle.’
My first encounter with the stinging nettle occurred one fine spring evening at County Cork’s legendary Arbutus Lodge (alas, now closed). Spying nettle soup on the menu and never having tasted it before, I promptly ordered a bowl and asked if there were any leaves in the kitchen that I could see. A few minutes after bringing the soup (delicious!) my server reappeared cradling a sprig of nettles in a pristine white napkin. Thinking ‘what an elegant presentation’ and unaware of the plant’s reputation, I picked it up and immediately my fingers felt like I had touched a glowing ember. With profuse apologies for not having warned me – why should she, as every Irish child knows better than to fondle fresh nettles – the waitress informed me that in the wild the plants grow alongside dock, the leaves of which are a folk cure for the skin irritation.
Unfortunately, there were no dock leaves in the larder. Nearly twenty years passed before I encountered nettles again. Recently at a local farmer’s market, I spotted a bin of the greens accompanied by a large hand-printed sign that read: “Caution Handle Carefully – nettles sting the skin!” Despite the warning, shoppers one after another picked up the bunches and just as quickly dropped them.
The grower – an Irish-American former U.S. Marine turned organic farmer – hastily assured his customers that not only does cooking or freezing neutralize the sting but that nettles are loaded with nutrients and, like fiery chiles with which today’s gourmet cooks are well acquainted, well worth the extra bit of caution needed when preparing them. Indeed, nettles are a rich source of vitamin C and potassium. They contain more iron than spinach, anti-histamines that help alleviate allergy symptoms, and serotonin, which imparts a feeling of well-being. Nettles are also reputed to be a blood purifier, useful in treating kidney infections, and an aid to hemoglobin production in red blood cells. Since the 6th century, they have been eaten in Ireland to relieve the pain of arthritis. Also, if you wanted to keep the rheumatics away for a year, it was customary to eat nettle soup three times during May, beginning on May 1, the spring festival of Beltaine.
But nutrition and medicinals are not the only roles the nettle has played in Irish history. Like flax, the source of linen, nettles can also be made into cloth. The plant’s fibers are, in fact, stronger than flax and when spun and woven create a textile similar to hemp. Well into the 20th century, nettle fibers were still being transformed into household sheets, tablecloths and fishing nets.
Nettles were also once used as dyes. The leafy parts of the plant will color wool green, or black when iron is used as a mordant, and the roots produce a gold color when mixed with alum. Hens fed nettle seeds will lay more eggs, and oil extracted from the seeds can be burned in a lantern. Lastly, nettles can be used as a vegetarian substitute for rennet when making cheese.
The Irish have been eating nettles for so many eons that the plant is well rooted in folklore. It was long believed that eating nettles would protect one from sorcery and feeding wilted leaves (which also negates the sting) to cows would safeguard the dairy herds from hexes that could cause them to stop producing milk. Even now some people still swear that nettles will only grow where elves live and thus deliberately plant nettles in their gardens, a practice that inevitably proves how mischievous the fairy folk are as nettles, which reproduce both by seed and underground rhizomes, can quickly take over nearby flowerbeds.
Since nettles grow wild and are easily foraged everywhere in Ireland, they have long played a vital role in the diet of the poor, a fact that is celebrated in the song ‘The Town of Ballybay’ which was recorded by Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers and can be listened to at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=cqu2mwPdkGE&feature=related. In this humorous tune, a woman of dubious character feeds her brood of more than twelve children “on potatoes and on soup she made with nettles and lumps of hairy bacon that she boiled up in the kettle.”
During An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger), a clause in the Irish Poor Law stipulated that anyone who owned more than a half-acre of land was not eligible for any aid or relief, forcing the starving famine victims to forage for edible plants, the most vital of which was the humble nettle. At the Irish Hunger Memorial in Manhattan’s Battery Park two miles of undulating walls that support the Memorial are lined with illuminated text of famine statistics and quotes, and patches of nettles can be found among the plantings of native Irish flora that surround a derelict stone cottage on the small hillock that recreates a plot of 19th century Irish farmland.
Our ancestors may have lacked the wheel, thermal underwear and television, but they were no pikers when it came to food. They ate just about anything. And therein lies the answer. Times were tough, and food was scarce. If it didn’t kill you, it went into the pot. And thankfully so, because nettles are one of the food world’s great tastes. Sláinte!