The nettle is not only prickly…

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When the underbrush leads to the hellebore, the crocuses and the violets and the hazel nuts are filled with hanging yellow flowers, the season of field herbs is not far off.  The use of these seedlings, sprouted from the earth just after the lethargy of winter, has a very long history.  Partly, in fact, many years ago, that is, when our ancestors realized that, aside from game, also fruits and vegetables and the first seedlings of the year could be good to eat. Leaves and roots were an integral part of their daily diets, and also were remedies for illnesses.  If necessary, they even played the role of almost magical plants, which were fundamental for countering negativity and misfortune.

He who has had the privilege of tasting this first greenery, tender and fresh, cooked or cured as per the recipe, must either pass through Tuscany at the end of winter or else live here and thereby fully enjoy the good and genuine regional cooking.  Here, obviously, the teaching of how to gather these small treasures is transmitted in great secrecy from grandmother to mother to daughter. The seedlings are almost never found on the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets, and to taste a dish based on wild herbs is really an experience not to be missed.

As mentioned, it is not easy to find people who are expert in distinguishing the good varieties in a field rich in fresh vegetation.  On the one hand, one must be careful not to gather near streets with heavy traffic or on land which is polluted or too fertilized; on the other hand, instead, it is most important to determine which varieties are edible and which are inedible and, additionally, which are poisonous.

We, to begin, decided to go safely with a plant which grows worldwide and which is easily recognizable; if you happen to touch it, it will cause a burning pain which lasts about 24 hours:  stinging nettles.

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The nettle has been appreciated by the ancient Greeks and Romans and by all peoples after them right up to the present day. Rumor has it that this started much much earlier, with even the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar being fed exclusively nettles for seven years. Offhand it may seem terrible or at least monotonous, but if you take into consideration nettle fillings, sauces, gravies, pies, salads, omlets, risottos, stuffed rolls and so forth, the entire story becomes more believable (and more bearable for the palate…).

Under our loveliest apple tree, near the children’s swing, there is a small space which was always held hostage by nettles and which, until today, we had never managed to weed out.  Therefore, we offered them an agreement: at the end of winter we collect the nettles from the plants that refuse to leave the occupied space, using them to make a nettle sauce ideally suited to accompany pasta, rice, or gnocchi. In return, we let the remaining nettles flourish, multiply, and grow in peace. Will we have done the right thing?

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Nettle Sauce (4 persons)

  • 500 gr. freshly harvested nettles (ours is from under the apple tree…)
  • 1 jar of peeled tomatoes
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Parmesan cheese to taste

Clean, wash, dry, and chop the nettles and put into a saucepan with olive oil; brown for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes with a bit of salt and pepper, cooking over low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes.  The result is a tasty sauce which goes particularly well on rice, pasta, or gnocchi; add grated parmesan to taste.

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Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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