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Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Nettle champ from Ulster ...

I should begin by praising the humble stinging nettle. It's a plant that most of us uproot from our gardens and take detours around when we find it in our path, but it's really rather amazing.



I mean just think about the mechanics of what it does: its hollow stinging hairs act like tiny hypodermic needles injecting a venom, made up of histamine and other chemicals, into the skin of passing animals. It does this to deter them from touching it or interfering with its growth cycle. It's a clever, defensive, "keep off my patch" mechanism that works brilliantly well.


In Ireland we've eaten fresh spring nettles since forever. Cooking destroys their sting, and - hey presto - you're left with is a delicious green vegetable, that contains more iron that spinach, is high in protein and loaded with vitamin C. It really is a bit of a superfood, but it's best eaten early in the season as they develop gritty particles called cystoliths later on as the leaves age. These cystoliths can cause urinary tract infections so, please, don't eat them after the end of June




Right now, though, I'd say the fresh green leaves are just about perfect for harvesting.

When I was a little girl my mum used to make nettle infusions as a hair tonic in the spring time. We'd pour it over our hair as a final rinse. The nettles made the hair shine, and they are also supposed to help control dandruff and scalp disorders. If you'd like to make some all you have to do is gather an armful of nettles and wash them in the sink. Chop them into manageable sized pieces with your kitchen scissors and place them in a saucepan with a couple of pints/ a litre of water. Bring the mixture to the boil, then turn down the heat and allow them to simmer for a few minutes. When they're done drain off the liquid and leave to cool. Once it's cooled down, add a drop of lavender oil to make it smell better, and then simply use it as a final rinse when you wash your hair. 

People have been making clothes out of nettles for the better part of two millennia. Do you remember in Hans Christian Andersen's Wild Swans how Eliza had to weave eleven shirts from the churchyard nettles to free her wild swan brothers from their stepmother's wicked spell? 

In cloth-making the nettles are processed in a manner very similar to the way in which flax is treated to produce a tough, hard-wearing material, not dissimilar to linen. Sadly it went out of fashion as a fabric way back in the sixteenth century with the arrival of cotton. During the First World War, however, some of the German soldiers' uniforms were made from nettle fabric as there was a shortage of cotton. There's been a bit of a resurgence of interest in it in more recent times. There's a lot of chat about it being an environmentally friendly material as they don't need to use agrochemicals given how robust our lovely native nettles are. 

But my own personal favourite thing to do with nettles is to make Nettle Champ. Champ is a big thing back home in Ulster. It's the Ulster version of Colcannon. You can find my recipe for Colcannon here: Recipe for Colcannon

If you'd like to turn your hand to making some nettle champ here's what you'll need:

Ingredients for Nettle Champ for four people:

Several handfuls of nettle tops
6 medium to large potatoes
200 ml of milk
150 g of butter 
1 large spring onion
Salt and pepper to taste 

Now, just a word or two about cutting nettles. You need to wear a pair of thick rubber gloves to cut them, and you need to wash them carefully. It's best to gather them from somewhere wild where they won't have been doused with any toxic pesticides. I'd also steer clear of the grass verges along the roadsides as they're going to be contaminated with all the nasties from passing vehicle emissions. I take the first four or five inches of the plant, using my kitchen scissors to cut them, and then lift them into a basket using the scissors like tongs to grip the stems. Avoid any unhealthy-looking brown leaves.

When you get them home wash them carefully. Cut off the green leaves and discard the stems. 

Peel the potatoes, chop the spring onion and boil them together until the potatoes are cooked.

Whilst the potatoes are cooking put the nettle leaves and the milk in a saucepan and bring to the boil, turn the heat down and let them simmer gently for seven or eight minutes. Then leave to one side.

When the potatoes have cooked, drain them and leave them to steam off any remaining moisture. Mash them with the spring onions, and season to taste. Add all of the nettles and then the milk, a little at a time, mashing as you go to achieve a light fluffy puree. Depending on which potatoes you use you may not need all the milk. Stop when you've achieved the desired, lightly-whipped consistency, and before you end up with something soupy. 

Your champ should be served with a well in the middle into which you place a dollop of butter, which melts to create a wonderful, salty, yellow reservoir. It makes a great accompaniment to a Sunday roast.

Delicious! 

When I was a child, this was a restorative dish that my grandmothers or my mum would make when I was off-colour. And to this day it is my ultimate comfort food.

If you have any left over (which is highly unlikely, but just saying that you had ...) you could save it in the fridge. Next morning shape the champ into little balls, and flatten them to make pancake shapes. Dust these with flour and fry them gently in the frying pan as part of a fried breakfast.

Delicious again! 

Clearly none of this is good for your cholesterol levels, but the odd little treat every now and then is good for morale. I mean what's the point in living to be a hundred and five if you're going to be as miserable as sin? 

Enjoy!

 Bonny x

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