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.

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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.

elderberrying

Whenever I become familiar with a plant I begin to see it everywhere, ubiquitous, like the name of a star who appears everywhere you look. Each year the elderberry eluded me. I never knew it like I know the wild blackberry, sure of its stages, and though we knew where to find elders from gathering elderflower in the spring, we’d return each summer to England long past berry season. This summer we were resolute. On a sunny afternoon the children and I called on the first plants we’d collected flowers from, along an old greenway near our old flat in London, where nettles grow tall and rich and blackberries line the path.

 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011

Abundance.

 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011

I was warned that elderberries are a bit poisonous raw, and so we still only imagine their flavour, though we’ve since heard that’s only the unripe ones. The bucketful we’ve picked are bound for a medicinal cordial, but may not make it past us to flu season. While the berries on the sunny side of the path were glorious black, in the shade there are green ones, there’s time yet to return for more elderberrying.

 elderberries © elisa rathje 2011

The elders grow tormentingly tall along our path, but we made a couple of friends, building at the end of a garden, who emerged with the perfect berry snips, and helped us forage a few extra umbels. Ever so kind! I spotted what I thought were plums high up, out of reach, and I’m delighted to hear they are likely damsons. My first glimpse of them. This is wild fruit I’ve only dreamt of in deep winter whilst poring over my copy of Hedgerow.

mirabelles © elisa rathje 2011

Our friends confirmed that we’d found a wild plum. Probably mirabelles, if Mark, the head gardener at River Cottage, can be trusted. He did just write their latest handbook, Fruit, which I must wrestle away from my tall girl so I can read it myself.

hawthorn berries © elisa rathje 2011

Our small girl was enchanted with the hawthorn berries and wanted to collect them. I’m hoping they will keep on the trees until we’re back in the countryside with our trugs and our preserving jars. I’ll be back soon to show you what I’m doing with all the wild food!

Before you go, subscribe to the appleturnover postcards, which will commence with this autumn’s equinox, in celebration of a year of homemade stories. I’ll be marking the anniversary with a gloriously delicious project that tells the story of how appleturnover came to be. Get the postcards to your inbox for a peek at what I’m plotting to learn to make in the coming months and to catch singular homemade projects appearing in the impending appleturnovershop.

wild garlic

We found something delicious growing in the old woodland. This is our favourite kind of walk, an edible one.

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Wild garlic.

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An enormous patch of it. I’d never encountered it before, our dear friend recognised it. Early in the spring is the best time for it. Mind that it smells of garlic when crushed! You don’t want to eat Lily of the Valley or some other poisonous thing. We gathered a bundle, took it home, rinsed, chopped and threw it into some rice along with mushrooms and greens from the farm, sautéed in butter, garlic and lemon. Marvelous.

Now we’re familiar, I’ve spotted some growing in the garden. (We were also astonished to discover Salmonberries vibrantly in flower! Fellow Canadian!) We learned to recognise wild strawberry. Always lovely to have a forager along with us. Or a good book, we’ll bring River Cottage Hedgerow with us when we’re on our own. There’s a recommendation in it for Wild Garlic Pesto. I should think so.

nettle infusions

Our little one has a cold. I’m pleased to have the rosehip cordial around for her, and some homeopathic pulsatilla, and it’s excellent timing for some very cosy organic cotton pajamas to have shown up in the post for her today. Tomorrow I hope to pick up a whole chicken to make a broth, but for now, I’m making nettle infusions. Luckily our children like them. This is a great way to get vitamins and minerals, and very inexpensive – free if you harvest the nettles yourself. I tend toward the anemic side, so nettles are an excellent herb for me.

We put on heavy gloves in the spring or early autumn to gather the fresh new leaves of the stinging nettle. I lay them out on a tray and pop them in a low oven after we’ve finished baking something else. They dry quickly and lose their sting. Then we crush them into a jar to keep for infusing later. I put a cupful of dry nettles in a jar, and pour a few cups of boiling water over them, cover with glass or ceramic, and leave to infuse at least twelve hours, usually twenty-four. The infusion should be a very dark green. I love how blood-strengthening foods announce themselves with their dark colours.

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Strain and drink it cool, or heat it up on a chilly day like this frosty one we’re having. It’s nice with lemon and a bit of sweetener, we use stevia. I sometimes use a french press for these kinds of infusions. My grandmother used to make nettle soup, and friends make nettle tortellini. Do you use nettles?

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quince brandy

Quince is another hedgerow fruit I’ve never tasted. Someone got to my dear friend’s favourite wild tree and picked it clean, so I bought a few.

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They cut just like apples and pears.

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Quince jelly would be so good. Very yellow, we imagine to ourselves. However we are overwhelmed with moving in a couple of weeks; the wonderful house in the countryside is ours! So jelly must wait til next year. Inspired by The Wonderful Weekend Book, we’ve set the quince to soak in brandy instead, waiting for the holidays. Star anise in one jar, cinnamon in another, vanilla beans all round. Oh, the sloe gin has turned a rosy shade after a day, and all the sloes have risen. Nettles infuse beside all of these, I shall be drinking it in hopes of finally getting over a very bad cough, and surviving the coming move.

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sloe gin

Sloe gin is an enticing delicacy I’d heard of in snippets of conversation, caught in passing on a walk or while watching one of those British shows that make you want to move to the countryside. Slow gin? For a long while I wondered what sloes were. Some kind of sea vegetable? Roots? I met sloes for the first time over email, a surprisingly good medium for introductions that lead to passionate affairs, but that is another story. Our dear friend Sonny found the sloeberries in profusion, and sent me this photograph.

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We spent this afternoon introducing the sloes to the gin. These have seen a light frost, so we didn’t prick the skins, just poured about an equal weight in sugar over them and filled the jar with the booze.

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River Cottage Preserves has a simple recipe. I’ll keep shaking the jar to dissolve the sugar, and later on we’ll taste it, weekly it says, well, that shouldn’t be too much of a chore. In a few weeks the sloes can be strained out, and then we must be patient for as long as possible before we drink it. A whole eighteen months sounds like an eternity.

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