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.

curing garlic

Each year in late autumn we plant the garlic, and each year around midsummer, we dig it up and lay it out to cure in a warm, airy, shady spot.

(Our cats were here to oversee the whole project, we got them from a rescue at garlic-planting time. They’re adults now, and such affectionate creatures, yet such brilliant hunters, curbing our rabbit, rat and mouse populations. Luckily they don’t like garlic themselves.)

The garlic bulbs are petite in the site I chose this year, but this harvest is still plenty for our needs. An easy thing to grow, and one less thing to remember to buy, I love that.

pickling cucumbers

Something of a curse has hung over my pickling ambitions. Each time I had the luck of finding pickling cucumbers in late summer – great joy! Delight! A week later, those cucumbers would remain, decidedly unpreserved, aging unpleasantly in the fridge, my life having swamped us with some unforeseen and dramatic circumstance. Once more this summer, old fashioned fainting episodes, emergency journeys! On the second pickling attempt I steeled myself for calamities. Despite threatening chaos, we pickled! Now, I’m ever so pleased to show you how easy it is to pickle, if you’re as nervous (me) and excited (all the neighbourhood children) as we were. What’s more, I’ve the fresh-pack dill cucumber pickle recipe we used, here, so generously, from Canning & Preserving with Ashley English. Thanks, my friend!

ingredients-s.jpg

You will need:

  • 6 pounds pickling cucumbers
  • ¾ cup pickling salt (divided)
  • 4 cups white vinegar
  • Garlic cloves, peeled
  • Dill seed
  • Fresh dill heads (if unavailable use dried dill)
  • Black peppercorns

blossom-cut cucumbers

The children on the lake gathered in our kitchen one late summer evening, and took turns to prepare the cucumbers for an overnight brine.

Rinse the cucumbers in cold water. Scrub gently with a vegetable brush to loosen any hidden soil. Remove a thin slice from the blossom end of each cucumber (if you can’t tell which end is the blossom end, just take a thin slice off of each end).

salted cucumbers

Place the cucumbers in a nonreactive glass or ceramic bowl, add ½ cup pickling salt, cover with water, place a plate or towel over the top, and set in a cool place or the refrigerator overnight or for 8 hours.

brined cucumbers

In the morning, all the children returned for a bit of dill pickling, peeling garlic and measuring vinegar.

Drain off the brine.

rinsed cucumbers

Rinse the cucumbers thoroughly to remove salt residue. Set aside.

Sterilize 8 pint mason jars, lids and screw rings.

In a medium stainless-steel pan, combine vinegar, 3 ½ cups water, and ¼ cup pickling salt. Bring the brine to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and set aside.

(The taller children and I did the very hot bits.)

spiced pickle

Many (little) hands make light work.

Into each sterilized jar, place 1 garlic clove, ½ teaspoon dill seed, 1 dill head or ½ teaspoon dried dill, and 8 black peppercorns.

packed pickles

Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Remember to adjust for altitude.

pickled pickles

Oh, we all enjoyed making these, how nice to have a cupboard full of dill pickles. With such a lovely experience of making fresh-pack pickles, now we must investigate making our own fermented pickles! And pickling throughout the year, beets, squash, anything you like. Thanks for the introduction, Ashley. You might like to check out her tried & true, here.

brandied peaches

When I find the very last of the summer fruit is going, I always wish I’d preserved just a bit more of it. Even the last two peaches will do! By now I think you know my solution. When it comes to the final peaches of the year, there’s nothing better to do than to introduce them to some brandy.

brandied-peaches-s.jpg

Charmed, I’m sure. Don’t worry if the peaches are long gone or not yet arrived where you are – any fruit will do. Quince would be perfect! Like ginny plums and drowned cherries, like elderflower liqueur or raspberry vodka, like oh, oh how I miss it, sloe gin, all you need is a bit of sugar and some kind of hard liquor. A clean jar. I sliced these peaches, poured half a cup of sugar over them, and filled the jar with brandy to cover the fruit. The longer you wait, the better it gets. The peaches will be intoxicatingly brandied, and the brandy will be exquisitely peachy. With the astonishingly early autumn storms we’ve been getting, summer seems a long way off. Brandied peaches will be a fine reminder on a cold winter’s night.

boozy plums

If you are so lucky as to have an abundance of plums and don’t know what to do with them all, I say, drown them in booze. We had a few from a tree at my childhood home, and they were getting overripe, suggestive of ginny plums anyway. Might as well push them in.

boozy plums

Plum liqueur is an astonishingly simple way to preserve a glut of fruit from late summer throughout the year. Choose an extremely clean, wide-mouthed mason jar, inexpensive vodka or gin, and sugar. Wash the plums, prick them all over with a fork and fill the jar. Sprinkle over a cupful of sugar; pour the booze over to submerge the plums. Seal the jar. I turn my jars of boozy plums now and then for a week or so. Taste the infusion in a couple of months; add more sugar if needed. I like to leave the fruit infusing for at least three months before we start tippling!

This little recipe featured in last autumn’s newsletter.