Wild food has a primal call. Catching a fish, digging clams, hunting (I suspect), and even picking a stinging nettle. Okay, there’s no danger involved with nettle gathering – being stung by a nettle is a weird, tingly sensation, but really not painful at all – but it’s still empowering.
So when a friend offered me one last chance to gather nettles this year, I didn’t hesitate, in spite of the persistent rain. (Once the nettles are more than a foot or so high, it’s too late to harvest. Older plants don’t taste great and contain calcium crystals that are hard to digest) Mid-May is really late for gathering nettles, even here in the Northwest. We were lucky to find any.
It’s hard to describe the taste of nettles – some people don’t think they have much taste at all. For me nettles are a subtle seafood flavor. They add pop to anything that would benefit from the addition of fish sauce, anchovies or clams.
Like this pasta. You can leave out the nettles of course – or replace them with a domesticated green. But it won’t be the same. The secret to removing the nettle’s sting is to blanch the leaves before you do anything else. Mine go straight from the gathering bag into boiling water.
I’m years behind this trend. And I’m no expert. For more recipes and more in-depth information check out the blogs of Hank Shaw and Langdon Cook. And you can always sign up for a local foraging class too. Or you can do what’ve I’ve been doing this spring, and tag along with a knowledgeable friend.
Spending time in the woods reminds you that gardens aren’t natural. When you walk in a rose garden, or plant tomatoes you aren’t getting back to nature. Gardens only represent nature to those of us so removed from the reality of our own ecosystem that we can indulge in the luxury of romanticizing the natural world.
That’s most of us, I think; at least most of us who have the time to hang out in cyberspace.
Gardens are about survival and security – it’s not surprising that we’ve come to define them as beautiful. And they are important. We need to grow food. And change our eating habits. And the way we choose to do those things moving forward has the power to change history – maybe even to save our ecosystem.
But there’s a lot going on outside of the orderly rows and raised beds. And maybe something as simple as picking nettles or wild blueberries can help remind us that all wild foods; dandelions, nettles, mushrooms, salmon, tuna and crab are precious, and like our limited wild spaces worth savoring and worth protecting.