a short guide to foraging and preserving nettles

The old-timers would take bitters in early spring, and wild stinging nettles grow just at the moment when we really need some good greens. Nettle is good for all of us here on the farm, and can be used in many ways. In early spring we head out foraging.

sun-dried-nettles

Harvest the nettles

The moment to forage stinging nettles for fresh eating and preserving is a dry day in early spring, while the tops are young and fresh. Heavy gloves, long trousers and sleeves and great respect for the plants are required. I keep a bit of calendula or comfrey salve to hand for stings. We like to use a pair of snips and a burlap sack, and we just cut the top few leaves, plenty of them as they dry down to very little! Then we take them home to preserve.

Preserve the nettles

To preserve the nettles, I shake them out onto a cookie tray (to keep from getting stung), put my oven on its lowest temperature with the fan on, and pull them out when crispy-dry. They should crush to a powder. Once dried or cooked the sting is removed, happily. Or, if you catch a good warm, dry day, you can lay them out on a clean sheet and turn them now and then til they are crisp. Fresh or dry, or a combination of both, you can make them into a nettle tincture.

Store the nettles

I love to have a store of dried nettle and tinctures put away for the year. As a tincture they store indefinitely. Fully dry in a glass jar they will keep for a lot longer than any of them ever last at our house, certainly past the brief autumn harvest and through to the following spring.

Use the nettles

A friend on a nearby farm harvested some nettles to provide me with mineral-rich tisanes as I was convalescing after an illness, and later on we gathered a huge batch together. Infusions full of minerals are just the thing to give me strength and are particularly good to help counter my iron-deficiency. You can make fresh nettle soup, pestos, ravioli too.

Nettles for flora and fauna

When the nettles are older they’re no longer safe for teas and soups, but they are excellent for making a liquid fertiliser for the garden – simply cover with water, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Goats love to eat nettles fresh, and our ducks and chickens like them if we crush them first to remove the sting. How great to create fertilisers and fodder from the wild larder! Closing the loop on fertility and feed is a huge step toward greater community-reliance.

dried-nettles

Foraging and preserving nettles for high-mineral wild infusions, medicinal tisanes, fertilisers and fresh eating is a very old, trusted practice. It feels good to continue it.

bee sting remedies

Stung! On our blueberrying trip, my tall girl’s little hand scared a stinging creature in a berry bush. Ouch. Whatever do you do?

penny-stings.jpg

Why, put a copper penny on it, of course. It works a charm. (Now, I’m sure I needn’t tell you it is best to clean both hand and penny, after checking to remove a stinger, and if you are allergic, disregard this entirely. Tongue swelling up? Get help!)

Seeing as this country is phasing out the copper penny, one might not find this remedy easily to hand in future. In that case, whip up some sodium bicarbonate or epsom salt with a bit of water to make a paste to apply; take a dose of homeopathic Apis Mellifica; chew the wild herb plantain, some basil, parsley or bee balm (oh right! obviously!) and apply; slice some garlic or onion and rub on the sting; splash on a bit of apple cider vinegar or a drop of lavender oil; you might even try prepared mustard, meat tenderiser, or toothpaste. Still, if you’re out in a field of blueberry bushes and nowhere near a kitchen, a penny might be just the bee sting remedy you need.

Thanks to my great friend Kimberly for this tip. It isn’t necessary to bring a wise woman with you on all adventures but it does make things easier.

blueberrying

One fine morning, we rose early (taking a break from that prolonged, distracting state that we call moving house) and headed to the farm with our buckets, hats and snacks.

blueberrying

A summer isn’t right without a few trips to the local farms, strawberrying, raspberrying. I feel rooted and stable when I’m eating food we’ve gathered ourselves, and I see the children are so content.

blueberrying

We are so lucky to know a farm that uses organic practices. (If you’re on the southern part of Vancouver Island, visit Nicholas Farm, they’re wonderful, I’m so grateful to live nearby.) Not a chemical to worry us, and such beautiful rows of heavy fruit.

blueberrying

Be sure to bring your young blueberriers with you. They are nimble and close to the little bushes, and if you ply them with sandwiches they may pick quite a heap.

blueberrying

My small one shouts “Jackpot!” upon finding gigantic berries. Extraordinary things. Six of us picked 120 pounds of gorgeous fruit in a short morning on the farm.

blueberrying

Berries to cook into jam or kiiseli or tarts; to dry, to sink in a jar of gin, to freeze. I could live on the beauties. Soon we’ll plant our own little patch and go blueberrying at the lakeside cottage.

plum picking

One year as we patiently awaited beautifully tree-ripened plums, a cheeky young bear stole into the tree and ate every last plum. He cracked branches, being neither a small nor a careful bear, and he lounged around in the sunny garden long after the larceny. Every year since, we make sure to beat the bears to the plums. The fruit will finish ripening in a bowl in the window.

plum-picking

Little girls are a good size to slip between the leaves for plum-picking without any branch-cracking or fruit-bruising. They do eat more than their share of plums, mind you.

plums

I’ve always got high hopes for all the things I could make with the plums. Yet in all but the most bumper-croppish years, they get eaten up while they’re fresh.

plums and berries

If you’ve got an abundance of plums in these last days of summer, or wild blackberries (which rarely get through our door without being plunged into whipped cream and devoured) get the quarterly, out this week. It includes a very simple recipe for preserving fruit through winter. Even if life has been too much of a whirl for jams and jellies, you’ll feel industrious and a little bit triumphant over this one – pretty good for ten minutes work.

sweet chestnuts

I’m amazed to discover just how many local, foraged foods I’ve rarely even tasted. Traditionally roasted whole sweet chestnuts is one of them. Castanea sativa. We were thrilled to find heavily laden chestnut trees in the countryside around us, and gathered some whenever we walked by.

sweet chestnuts © elisa rathje 2011

I have eaten chestnuts, once. For an anniversary, when we were in Paris for work, my sweetheart and I went to a remarkable Corsican restaurant where marron is used in extraordinary ways. We tried chestnut wine, chestnut bread, chestnut ice cream. It was intoxicatingly delicious, unforgettably so. We don’t have enough from our foraging to grind chestnut flour, but I’d love to try some day.

sweet chestnuts © elisa rathje 2011

Author, gardener and forager, Alÿs Fowler introduced me to the sweet chestnut on a foraging walk in September, before the chestnuts were ripe. This autumn some neighbourhood children showed me how to gently step on the spiky cases to press them open and pinch the deeply coloured seeds from inside. My tall girl says to score the skin with an X around the tufty end before roasting, so that they don’t explode, an effect that she tested at her bushcraft course. I’d love to try a traditional chestnut roasting pan, a friend offered to lend us hers. Exciting! For now we’re saving the chestnuts in the fridge for the holidays, to roast them over an open fire.