This IS a recipe, but I have a story to tell first:
The summers between 5th grade and 7th grade I stayed with my great-aunt and great uncle in France. They lived in Nice, in the same tiny apartment that my grandmother grew up in. On the weekends we went and stayed at their chalet in the Alps that my uncle built himself. It was small, but beautiful and sturdy. The door was a huge, solid piece of wood hand-carved with beautiful designs. We went on hikes, picked wild mushrooms and strawberries, sometimes we would come upon stray goats or sheep, their bells tinkling. I spent hours playing and dreaming in the beautiful flowers of the alpine meadows,and made elaborate flower braids and crowns to amuse myself.
I had always been a very picky eater. My family, like so many modern American families, always had snacks around. At Gaby’s house, there was only food at mealtimes, and often it was mostly a large pot of soup, and bread and cheese. I suddenly became a very good, not-picky eater. The mountain air, the exercise, and the sunshine changed me. Both summers I spent there, I grew so much I couldn’t fit in my clothes at the end! I had always been shorter than my best friend, but I came home an inch taller than her at the end of the first summer.
One of my very favorite things to eat at the chalet was a soup made out of some mysterious greens – my grandmother told me it was spinach, but it didn’t taste like spinach. I assumed it was some special kind of French spinach, and didn’t ask questions – I just ate (a lot of it). But once I saw my grandmother and aunt harvesting the greens for soup. They had gloves on, and it appeared that they were picking the nettles. My grandmother denied this. She insisted it was spinach.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my son that I started drinking nettle tea. At the first sip, I had a surprise – the taste! My favorite soup ever! It was nettles!
When we went to France last year, we visited my cousin Aurore. She lives way up in the Alps near Switzerland. I mentioned how much I loved Gaby’s nettle soup, and she verified that it was actually nettles. She said there is also a wild spinach (so perhaps this was what my grandmother was talking about – I had assumed she thought maybe I wouldn’t like it if I thought it was nettles). She took us on a walk and we found nettles and wild spinach, and she made a delicious nettle soup for dinner.
A few days later, we were staying in the hay loft a a sheep farmer in St. Croix-aux-mines, in Alsace. It is a very small town a short distance away from St. Marie-aux-mines, where my great-grandmother was from. I was supposed to cook lunch for the farmer, his three teenage daughters, my family and my dad. The farmer had on hand a sack of potatoes, some onions, a large lettuce, half a dozen eggs, and some bread. We brought a quantity of butter with us, but it still wasn’t very promising to make a lunch for that many people with so few provisions.
However, quite a lot of nettles were growing outside, so I went out to pick. Aurore had shown me the trick of gently pulling the young, tender leaves from the base of the leaf toward the tip as you pick them, so they won’t sting you. I made a large pot of green soup that the farmer’s three daughters eyed suspiciously. You could tell they had totally been burned by WWOOF-er cooked lunches before.
After a taste, everyone realized it was actually really good, and it was finished off with enthusiasm. Their father was pleased to tell them it was made with nettles, and see their surprise/horror, but they still admitted that they had really liked it.
While European nettles are an established and annoying weed up North, they don’t really grow here in Florida. We have a “nettle” that is not the same species, and in the winter and spring pellatory and fire nettle grow abundantly. But they are quite different. So imagine my surprise and delight this winter, when a nettle plant – a real European nettle, grew in my garden! (can you believe I’ve been carefully tending it and watering it?)
And now with the potatoes ready, and the nettle all covered with tops, we were ready for our own, home-grown nettle soup!
POTAGE AUX ORTIES: Nettle Soup