“Down by the glenside, I met an old woman
A-plucking young nettles, She ne’er saw me comin’
I listened a while To the song she was humming
Glory O, Glory O, To the bold Fenian men”
My grandfather told me his mother used to sing him this song, and it’s always heard around our house at this time of year. The theme is Irish nationalism, but to me it means soup.
The only appropriate response to the lush green of this time of year, the only way not to be quite washed away by that overwhelming sense of newly flowing juices, is to eat the spring. Those greens are just as sweet and tender as they look.
Nettle soup has been made in the British Isles for at least five thousand years. Frankly, until you’ve picked and eaten nettles, you’ve never know the wild green heart of spring. Bending to pick, soaked in the green at the bottom of a shady glen or under a frothing thorn hedge, the wet, musky smell brings out the feral. The tingle as you’re stung right through your gloves, the meaty, spicy flavour and the peculiar, unctuous chaw of them… spring bounds in through every sensual gate.
Every second day is often enough to eat nettle soup in April – on other days, you can make a delicious wild salad.
The leaves on the trees at this time of year make a great lettuce-like base. Top of the list are:
Linden – sweet and buttery, you might catch me eating them off the tree like a giraffe
Beech – a delicate sour flavour, only tasty when young
Elm Flowers – the pale green pompoms on the elms are made up of leafy discs with little seeds in the middle, which are wonderfully juicy and refreshing, with a taste of cucumber.
Then, a on wild grocery shelf at eye-level, there are
Bramble Leaf shoots – the very young leaves are tender and velvety, and not prickly at all, and they have a very blackberry taste
Hawthorn, AKA Bread and Cheese – slightly bitter but pleasantly nutty
Looking down to the very bottom shelves now:
Plantain – later in the year they need fine slicing, but right now they’re great whole.
Dandelion Leaves – Very bitter, but a delicious acquired tast – best mixed in with other leaves during the process of acquisition
Salad Burnet – Slightly bitter with layered flavours, nutty and cucumbery
Oxeye Daisy Leaves – spectacularly zingy
And then add a handful of herbs are great for adding extra flavour:
Sorrel – Juicy, refreshing and deliciously sour
Lovage – Strong flavoured, spicy and with a kick to it. One of my favourite herbs for salads.
Sweet Cicely – Soft furry leaves, and taste of aniseed. It’s related to hemlock and other poisonous plants and looks not entirely dissimilar to them, so make sure it really is Sweet Cicely before you eat it.
Wild Garlic – Delicious, but will make you smell of garlic!
You can use the flowers of the plants you have been picking – the ones that have flowers. Violet and primrose flowers will of course also look gorgeous, but you might not be able to bring yourselves to eat them. Even at the last moment, I have very nearly decided to put them in a vase instead.