Friday, January 19, 2007

A Saintly Weed.

Today, January 19th …

After the previous two days of heavy-duty menus, it is a relief to return to some delicate plant cookery. The mediaeval monks’ saintly calendar of flowers comes to our rescue today. The plant of the day, which is dedicated to St Martha, is the White Dead Nettle.

The stinging nettle is a weed, an invalid food, or a spinach substitute, depending on your point of view, state of health, and finances. Its medicinal use goes back many centuries, and we have already met the hymnist John Byrom, who used ‘nettle broth’ for some unspecified malady in 1728. Nicolas Culpeper in his famous herbal the English Physitian (1652) gave a list of medicinal actions of the nettle, noting among other things that would:

“ … open the Pipes and passages of the Lungs … and helpeth to expectorate tough Flegm, as also to raise the impostumated Pleuresie, and spend it by spitting; .. killeth the Worms in Children, easeth pains in the sides, and dissolveth the windiness in the Spleen, as also in the Body, … Remedy against the stinging of Venemous Creatures, the biting of Mad Dogs … ”

Culpeper’s contemporary, Samuel Pepys, recorded taking nettle porridge on a number of occasions. We know he suffered from ‘the stone’, so perhaps the nettles helped, for Culpeper also said of it that “the Seed provoketh Urine, and expelleth the Gravel and Stone in the Reins or Bladder.”

Aside from its medical use, the nettle is a most useful culinary plant. It can be used to make tea or beer, depending on inclinations and brewing skill, but it is less well known that it can be used as a sort of vegetable rennet (vegetarians take note). Cassells’ Dictionary of Cookery (1870’s) says:

Nettle, Rennet of.
In the Western Isles of Scotland a rennet is prepared by adding a quart of salt to three pints of a strong decoction of nettles, a table-spoonful of which is said to be sufficient to coagulate a bowl of milk.

The most usual use of course is as a pot herb. Given that the usual consumers of the nettle are the peasants and the poor, it is not surprising that there are almost no recipes for it in cookbooks – if one could afford to buy a cookbook, and had an education that enabled one to read it, presumably one would not be eating wayside weeds. Alexis Soyer, the most famous chef of the Victorian era did however include instructions for cooking nettles it in his Shilling Cookery for the People, published in 1854. He did not have a recipe for them in The Modern Housewife (1853), which was clearly written for a better class of reader.

Here is the recipe from Soyer’s book, whose full title is: Shilling Cookery for the People: embracing An Entirely New System of Plain Cookery and Domestic Economy (1854). He addresses the recipes in the book to ‘Eloise’.

“I herewith send you the receipts I promised you on Nettles which I tried while in Norfolk”

Wash them well, drain, put them into plenty of boiling water with a little salt, boil for twenty minutes, or a little longer, drain them, put them on a board and chop them up, and either serve plain, or put them in the pan with a little salt, pepper, and a bit of butter, or a little fat and gravy from a roast; or add to a pound two teaspoonfuls of flour, a gill of skim milk, a teaspoonful of sugar, and serve with or without poached eggs.
This extraordinary spring production, of which few know the value, is at once pleasing to the sight, easy of digestion, and at a time of the year when greens are not to be obtained, invaluable as a purifier of the blood; the only fault is, as I have told you above, Eloise, they are to be had for nothing; it is a pity children are not employed to pick them, and sell them in market towns.

Monday’s Story …

The Death of a Queen.

A Previous Story for this Day …

A story about the avocado, which grows on 'the Testicle Tree'.

On this Topic …

Other recipes for flowering plants are:

15thC Almond and Rose-petal sauce for Loche [fish]
17th C Minnow tansie with primroses and cowslips (same site as the above)
18th C Syrup of Violets.
20th C Eggs cooked with Marigold

Quotation for the Day …

Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food. Hippocrates.


Anonymous said...

I understand you can quickly make nettles edible by toasting the leafy stems over a fire. The heat wilts the spines, I believe, removing the sting.

The Old Foodie said...

Yes, heat destroys the formic acid that causes the stinging. Usually they are boiled - I've never heard of toasting them over a fire, but it would certainly work. You learn something every day, dont you? Sometimes so many things your head hurts, I find. Especially if it is before breakfast.

Buy weed said...

Toasting it over fire is a new thing to me.Very interesting.