It was another January day, the air crisp with an unfamiliar sun shedding light on my milky winter skin. I walked through the woods inhaling deeply; tomorrow I would fly back to London, back into the unbreakable rhythm of city life. So today my sole mission was to absorb this wild place through my pores, store up the scent of pine and heavy earth until I could return.
Beneath the canopy of evergreens, the forest is bare this time of year with a shrivelled and sunken undergrowth lying low to the ground. Soon the green would return, timidly at first, then brash, and finally swarming, threatening to suffocate any wanderer who walks this way. The blackberries, salmon berries, and huckleberries, ferns and nettles . . . . nettles? Was it possible?
Last year I discovered that nettles arrive early, one of the first Spring greens to brave the frost and burst sprawling upwards from the forest floor. But that was early February, surely mid January would be too soon. But I was curious. Veering from the path I stooped under a tall cedar, the site of my most abundant nettle harvest last year. But the ground was covered here, as elsewhere, with a mishmash of dead stalks and and twigs. Pushing these aside I bent down further, scrutinizing the ground. And yes, here and there I could pick out little furled shoots peeping out of the soil. Nettles? Not sure I picked one and brought it very close to my nose, sniffing for that unmistakable, soporific scent.
Ouch! My head jerked involuntarily back and I rubbed the end of my nose, annoyed and gleeful. That was nettle alright. And the more I searched and pushed back the dead leaves the more of them I found, tiny ones, no more than an inch or two high, but vicious as any full grown plant.
Half an hour later I was back in the woods, this time equipped with the essentials for nettle collecting: a pair of pink rubber gloves, scissors, and a bag. It took quite a while, given how small and inconspicuous the nettles were, but eventually I managed to collect a a good amount, enough for my purpose. For although there are many wonderful ways to use nettles in the kitchen, the one I love best, and salivate at the thought of, is nettle pesto. Like basil, nettle is a strident, spicy green, powerful enough to hold its own when pummeled into a paste with garlic, olive oil, parmesan, and nuts. In fact, I think nettles make a far more subtle and lively pesto.
Here’s my recipe:
4 cups fresh nettles, packed (use gloves when handling fresh nettles!)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
1/2 cup pecans, walnuts, or pine nuts
1 clove garlic, minced
6 cloves garlic, whole and unpeeled
a little lemon juice
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Blanch the nettles briefly in boiling water (30 seconds or so) and leave to drain. Heat the unpeeled garlic cloves in a skillet until aromatic. Remove, allow to cool, and then peel. Heat the nuts in the same skillet until lightly toasted. Let them cool and then roughly chop. Throw the nettles, minced and whole garlic, and nuts into a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the oil and process well. Stir in the parmesan and season to taste with lemon juice, salt, and pepper.