Eating Shoots And Leaves

A trip to the countryside to nibble nettle-tops

Food
Some talk of alexanders, and some of stinging nettles: Smyrnium olusatrum, better known as "alexanders" (Tato Grasso CC BY-SA 3.0)

If you like making yourself cross about nothing, as I do, I recommend reading food-related health claims on the internet. You will find, for example, that many foods are bad because they are “inflammatory”, although what exactly gets inflamed is never quite clear, and you will find many people such as practitioners of the “Paleo” diet who say we should try to eat like Paleolithic man, evangelising about “bone broth”, i.e. plain old stock. The spiel on the website PaleoLeap seems to have been written by a caveman inventing the idea of food for the first time: “Looking at a bone, you might think it has nothing to offer in terms of nutrition. Lick it, and it has an unpleasantly sandpapery texture. Bite into it, and all you get is a sore tooth.”

A key health claim is the collagen (aka gelatin) content. On one website I find a blog post asserting that gelatin “helps seal the colon”. This sequence of words read so oddly to me that I immediately Googled it. The exact same phrase appears on half a dozen different websites with no explanation. It turns out that your colon may need to be “sealed” because you have a “leaky gut”. What is a “leaky gut”? From the NHS Choices website: “‘Leaky gut syndrome’ is a proposed condition some health practitioners claim is the cause of a wide range of long-term conditions . . . you should be wary of treatments offered by people who claim to be able to ‘cure’ ‘leaky gut syndrome’, as there is little scientific evidence to suggest they are beneficial for many of the conditions they are claimed to help.” The very idea of gelatin “sealing” anything — as if it’s going to stick onto your intestinal wall like window putty. Your digestive system breaks down gelatin, like any other protein, into its constituent amino acids, and then uses those amino acids however it wants to. Chicken or beef collagen doesn’t get absorbed as a whole molecule; your body — obviously — makes its own.

One food guru, Sarah Wilson, shares a picture of her “gut-healing” breakfast: “coffee almond milk gelatin chews (two ingredients: grass-fed beef gelatin with coffee almond milk)”. It seems odd to call “coffee almond milk” one ingredient, but I’m impressed that she has managed to find a way of eating jelly for breakfast. Brodo, in New York, offers broth in a cup to drink like tea or coffee. “It has been said that we created a new hot beverage,” says their website. (To their credit they follow this up with “People have been drinking broth forever. We just did the work and then put it in a cup.”) You can buy 32oz frozen cartons (i.e. a litre) if you want to spend $15-$20. I don’t want to hate too much, because broth is of course delicious, but I can’t help rankling.

If you want to calm yourself down, April is an ideal time to go for a walk and pick various wild shoots, the “tendre croppes” of the Canterbury Tales prologue. You don’t have to forage as if you were a malnourished serf or Paleolithic Man desperate for vitamins. You can forage because it’s interesting and delicious. Perhaps you can put some chicken stock on to simmer before you go out to the hedgerows.

Alexanders (singular as well as plural) is easy to recognise by its large yellow-green flower heads, a bit like cow parsley, and its strong aromatic smell, like angelica (it is related to both). They are part of a large and useful family which includes carrots and parsnips (the Umbelliferae), but also hemlock and water dropwort, which will literally kill you, and with which it is possible to confuse Alexanders. Fortunately they smell horrid (apparently) and, unlike Alexanders, prefer wet riverbanks and marshes. Even so, take an illustrated guidebook (Richard Mabey’s Food For Free is a classic) and ideally someone who knows what the plant looks like.

Alexanders are probably not for everyone and the smell can be strong enough that you won’t want to bring them into the kitchen any sooner than you have too. The leaves and youngish stems are the part I have had best luck with. Break them off the main stem, steam for a very few minutes and eat with melted butter, salt and pepper, like asparagus. I find the large stems, which are hollow and have a tough skin, are too bitter, and you have to peel them, which is a bore. Alexanders are thought to have been brought over by the Romans and were used as a pot-herb until parsley and celery took over. I have not tried using it as an aromatic in my “bone broth” but I am sure a Roman would recommend it.

I ate my Alexanders alone, with anxiety I didn’t have in previous years, Googling what hemlock and water dropwort look like to make sure I wasn’t poisoning myself. It did not make for serenity. John Wright, in his River Cottage Handbook: Booze (Bloomsbury, £14.99), recommends “Gin Alexanders” — steeping the plant in gin, which uses the Alexanders’ unusual taste and aroma to best effect. I have made a jar but at the time of writing it needs longer.

With nettles it’s crucial to take the small shoots which are only a few inches tall — older plants get stringy and develop tiny gritty particles. The fibres from old nettles can be spun into cloth — the yield is apparently comparable to flax. Spinning nettles is often given as an impossible challenge in fairytales only for the heroine to find (as in “The Nettle Spinner” in Andrew Lang’s 1890 Red Fairy Book) that the nettles spin rather well: “to her great surprise the nettles when crushed and prepared gave her a good thread, soft and light and firm.” Another difficulty is that, like spinach, it wilts to nothing: you need at least a carrier bag full of shoots to get any quantity. I’m not sure giving a recipe for nettle soup will tell you anything which isn’t obvious: sauté an onion, add some chicken stock, then your nettles, season. You can add cooked potato or rice to thicken it and it’s usual to purée the soup in case of fibrousness.

But the stinky prince of foraged leaves is wild garlic. The smell will alert you before you spot the plants, which have spherical white flowerheads like other alliums. It likes dampish places and it likes to grow in quantity. Don’t look for a bulb or root — the leaves are what you are after — and it has many uses: wilt it as a vegetable, fold it into bubble and squeak, pound it into a pesto. My top recommendation is to shred and add it at the last minute to your suddenly highly fashionable bone broth.