The answer to the hungry gap? Nettles!
Look a little closer at the labels of the ‘spring’ vegetables you buy in the supermarket in March and even April, and you’ll see those peas, asparagus and broad beans have actually been grown in Peru, Mexico and Thailand. In the days before food was flown across time zones, we would have been eating old potatoes and boiled cabbage at this time of year, hence the name ‘the hungry gap’.
Gardeners can vary their diet with home-grown food if they plan ahead. Purple-sprouting broccoli is a Spring delight; and when my kale goes to seed I eat the flower spears before they bloom, they’re almost as tasty. Chard grows full-leaved again before it goes to seed, and I’ve been enjoying Winter lettuce, given to me as seedlings by my allotment neighbour in October, which has survived those brief frosts we had, and seems all the tastier.
But my favourite solution to the hungry gap is a Spring green that grows freely on and near my plot: stinging nettles! Nettles are one of the most easily-identified foraged foods; we all know them from their sting. Why do I love them? Mainly because they taste good and they’re free. They also contain Vitamins A, C and K, calcium and antioxidants, so they’re good for you too.
Finding and picking nettles
Nettles are one of the first plants to come up in early Spring, which is also the time when they’re best to eat, as the tips are tender. Pick them in a place where you know they’re clean and unpolluted by exhaust fumes, and that you have permission. Use good gloves to avoid the sting – I use rubber washing up gloves, as nettles can sting through fabric. As with all wild foods, aim to only take a small proportion of what you can see, following the principles of the honourable harvest. Nettles are a vital plant food for butterflies and moths, including the beautiful peacock and red admiral butterflies, as well as helpful ladybirds. Pick only the soft tender tops of the nettles, the leaves and stems of older plants are bitter and stringy and not good to eat. Shake them out as you pick them, to dislodge any insects.
Cooking with nettles
Even brief cooking will take away the nettles’ sting, but up to that point, keep your gloves on when handling them. A quick rinse is a good idea before cooking. You can treat them like any leafy green – steam them or very briefly boil them, then serve with olive oil or butter. Ground cumin is a good flavour match if you want to spice them up a bit. Three of my favourite nettle recipes are soup, spanakopita and risotto, all in this article by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. Nettles also make a lovely pesto, which you can spice up with other wild greens like dandelion leaves, wild garlic and jack-in-the hedge, which grows prolifically in my plot.
I also like to dry nettles to make tea, it’s delicious with liquorice. I just hang them up for a few days and crumble them into a wide mouthed jar. Keep your gloves on for this – a few stings can remain.