Nettles are best harvested from spring, a few weeks after they sprout, into early summer. The young leaves are what we are after, so young plants — under a foot tall — are ideal. Larger plants can be harvested from, but in this case, foragers should stick to the new leaves at the top of the plant.
How to pick Nettles
Nettles are covered with tiny hollow hairs filled with irritating chemicals. When you brush against these hairs, the tips break off and release the chemicals, causing the sting. To harvest nettles with bare hands, choose plants in the shade – nettles in full shade tend to have fewer hairs than plants that have grown in the sun. Look closely for the hairs. Typically, a nettle has stinging hairs mostly on the undersides of the leaves. Choose a leaf near the top of the plant. Approach it from the direction the hairs are growing – you’re less likely to break the hairs if you grasp from the base of the hairs rather than running your hand into the tips. Then pinch the leaf firmly. A quick, firm grasp is your best bet to avoid breaking the hairs. You can then twist the leaf and pluck it off the plant. Once picked, dunk the nettles in boiling water for about 30 seconds to get rid of the stings, then dunk them in iced water to refresh. Pat them dry with kitchen paper and you’re ready to go. Or you could just wear gloves...
Nettle Salsa Verde
Nettles can be a bit of a pest, so it’s quite nice to have a couple of uses for them up your (long) sleeve. This recipe makes a really nice vivid green dressing that goes with loads of things, from sea bass to steak.
Makes 350ml (12fl oz)
• 40g (1½oz) nettles
• 100g (3½oz) hazelnuts
• 4 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
• 40g (1½oz) flat leaf parsley or parcel
• 40g (1½oz) mint
• 40g (1½oz) rocket
• 200ml (7fl oz) rapeseed oil
• 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• a squeeze of lemon juice
• salt and pepper
Blanch and refresh the nettles by bringing a pan of water to the boil, and using tongs, drop the nettles in. Use a slotted spoon to lift the nettles out of the water as soon as they start to wilt (about 30 seconds or so.)
Chop all the dry ingredients separately by hand, then chop them together. Mix with the rapeseed oil and balsamic vinegar. Add the lemon juice and season to taste.
Yes, we know it sounds weird, but it’s crisp and refreshing – and great with a shot of something stronger in it!
Makes 350ml (12fl oz)
• 1kg (2lb 4oz) sugar
• 500ml (18fl oz) water
• 40g (1½oz) citric acid powder
• 200g (7oz) nettles
Warm the sugar and water until the sugar has dissolved. Add the citric acid and nettles. Leave to cool. After 24 hours, pass through a muslin lined sieve and pour into sterilised bottles.