About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006
Stinging Nettles
Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall would have been proud.

There I was in the garden, having surruptiously crept out of the house armed with gloves and scissors and carrying a plastic bag. The big, old vegetable garden was lying fallow for the winter after everything had been harvested. Except the garden wasn't really fallow. Weeds had sprung to life in the rich soil that had been assiduously worked over during the growing season, providing ideal conditions for them.

Initially I was checking for birch mushrooms under some silver birches planted for that very reason, but was soon diverted by a glimpse of a weed that I had been waiting for. The last time I saw it here, I told my wife D, who disdains them, that I was going to pick it, but the plant mysteriously vanished before that happened. This time I told no-one. In no time the bag was filled with the weed, except this was no ordinary weed.

It was stinging nettles.

Stinging nettles have a long culinary history, having been eaten since Roman times. They have many properties, including being richer in iron than spinach with the equivalent amount of vitamins A and C as well as a good amount of minerals. Herbalists recommend drinking nettle tea for your health, and recent research on nettles shows that they can interfere or block a chemical process in the body that has been linked to prostate disorders. As men age, free-floating testosterone becomes bound to albumin in a process called human sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), removing its bioavailability to the body. This chemical process is now believed to be linked to prostate disorders. In several clinical studies, nettles have demonstrated the ability to block this process which may well explain its documented effectiveness in the treatment of many prostate conditions. Since testosterone is a natural aphrodisiac, and nettles makes more testosterone bioavailable for the body's use by blocking SHBG, this may also explain why nettles have recently been regarded as having aphrodisiac properties.

Another use for nettles is Urtification. This is the process of deliberately stinging the skin with nettles. Roman soldiers, chilled by the cold, often rubbed their feet and hands with nettles to bring back their circulation, whilst convicts were punished by lashing large nettle bushes across their bare backs. Urtification has been used successfully for treating rheumatism and arthritis by tricking the nervous system into overlooking the deeper pain. Some people have even used it for sexual arousal.

The first time I ever tried eating nettles was in a place called Woods Point, an old gold mining town in the sub alpine region to the east of Melbourne. There are plenty of small creeks and disturbed ground through gold mining activities, both of which provide ideal conditions for this plant, Urtica dioica, to grow.

Woods Point was founded on the back of the now closed Morning Star gold mine, one of the richest this state has ever seen, rivaling the fabled Long Tunnel mine at Walhalla. There were several other mines in the district which included the A1 mine a short drive out of Woods Point, which was the last to close. We used to holiday there in a friend's house, which is how we met the two itinerant Swiss, both named Francois. They both worked for the A1 mine and one of them opened a restaurant called Diggers Delight in the others large and rambling house. To avoid confusion, in an Australian touch we called one Frank and the other Francois.

Frank was the best mushroomer I have ever seen. He used to forage far and wide and come back with an incredible array. One time we went for morels, Frank was up at first light and came back with an armful of them, from spots that no-one knew about, including him. We spent weekends driving around in the morel season, and it was largely due to Frank that we found the spots we did.

One of the other things that Frank picked on his rambles was stinging nettles, which was how I first tried them, served in a soup in the restaurant. It's funny, I can't actually remember the taste of them, only that I really liked the soup. Since then, nettles have been rather hard to come by. Until I saw them growing in my sister-in-law's garden. Well now I had a whole bag of them, and what I wanted to try was a nettle risotto I saw prepared by Armando on one of Neil Perry's shows.

Nettle Risotto

nettle leaves, stripped from the stalk, about a medium pot full
1 onion, finely chopped
100 ml (4 oz) olive oil
2 cups risotto rice (we used Ferron's Vialone Nano)
3 l (6.5 p) chicken stock, simmering on stove
salt & pepper
25 g (1 oz) butter
25 g (1 oz) parmesan cheese - optional

Soften the onions in the olive oil, then add the nettle leaves and cook until they collapse. Add the rice and saute for another two minutes. Add a ladleful of stock and stir until absorbed, then keep adding stock a ladleful at a time, continually stirring until the rice is cooked. If you run out of stock add some boiling water. Season and stir in butter and cheese if using and serve.

The reason the cheese is optional is that it overwhelms the delicate taste of the nettles. What you will have is a beautiful lime green risotto streaked with the darker leaves. It's delicious.
  posted at 7:34 am

At 3:07 pm, Blogger plum said...

Did you confess what made it so delicious?

At 3:24 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi Plum, if you are refering to one of the claims, it may well, ahem, be true.

At 11:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just having finished a cup of newly brewed nettle tea, I kinda got your gist tankedup. I flavoured the tea with some lemon verbena which is a detoxifier and raspberry leaf which is a tonifier. Nettle has been described as helping to fortify the blood and help with (get this) prostrate disorders. I wonder if it can curb emotional disorders in women though or nullify an overdose of progestorone. Hmmmm, I will see... (winks profusely).

At 7:37 am, Blogger Gigi said...

I'm going to have to imagine what this tastes like because I don't remember ever seeing nettles in these parts.

I've just been trying to catch up on your pages but had to stop and get something to eat ~ you always make me so hungry. I share your weakness for the Colonel's chicken, by the way, although I seldom can afford to indulge the calories. There must be millions...hey, maybe that's the missing ingredient! ;D

At 2:00 pm, Blogger Niki said...

Hehehe. I received the River Cottage cookbook for my birthday, because I do have quite a "thing" for Hugh F-W, but I can't imagine I'll be cooking too much from it. Lots of fun to read, though...

At 12:09 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi Greg, good luck with that!

Hi gigi, I've never seen them for sale either, they're really a wild food. The problem is when you find them unexpectedly, you are never able to pick them, ouch. I hear what you are saying about the food, just for you I will come up with something delicious and hopefully not to calorific, unlike the colonel's chicken :-)

Hi niki, I picked up one of his books once, I think it was called Meat or something like that and the impression was it would be a good read but the recipes didn't sing out to be cooked. This thing you have about Hugh doesn't relate to his seeming inability to keep his kit on? ;-)

At 12:52 am, Blogger Unknown said...

Um, I'm from Melbourne, Camberwell and I was just wondering.. Where can I get me some of this poisonous yet nutritious wonder?! And I don't mean the pills that they come in now, I mean a fresh bunch.

At 6:01 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi Phee, we get ours from the garden where they spring up every year by themselves. If you don't have any growing, farmer's markets sell them in season, which is winter/spring.


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