Oh nettle, where is thy sting?

Nettles in field

I love the smell of nettles in the morning.

They smell of spring to me. I tried to think, yesterday, while playing in the field and kitchen, how to describe their scent. Are they lemony? Peppery? Soapy? None of these will do. They just smell, gloriously, like nettles.

Most of us, most of the time perhaps do not get so close to a nettle patch to catch their heady scent. But if, as I did, you go out with a pair of rubber gloves, nice and early while the sun is just beginning to drive off the dew, you can pick a bagful without getting stung and get a good whiff while you are picking.

Then back to the kitchen and a sinkful of scented green leaves (rubber gloves still on); blanch them and squeeze out the water (rubber gloves off at last), mix with cooked potatoes, semolina, flour and egg. This is the dough for potato and nettle gnocchi, which we ate in the evening with sage butter. I have made nettle pasta (brighter green than spinach pasta) before but it was my first time of making these delicious little dumplings.

Oh, and those nettles are very nutritious, and free, and you can make all sorts of things out of them. All very worthy, but I was just having fun.

Note:After reading the first version of this post, my friend pointed out (see comments below) that the nettles in the picture with the fetching white flowers are dead nettles, which look very similar to stinging nettles and grow in the same places but are unrelated and do not sting.

So I went back to the nettle patch for another look and indeed there is a fine mix of both urtica dioica (with stings) and lamium album (without). Luckily both are edible as I suspect both went into my cooking!

Nettles in kitchen

Making gnocchi

Vegetable Stories no 2

I am at the kitchen window, looking out on the garden as I tear the fat stalks from a glossy sinkful of chard leaves. Baby carrots and cavalo navone (a buttery Italian turnip, highly recommended) are stewing with oil and honey. Steam from the new potatoes rattles the saucepan lid and makes me think of James Watt watching his mother’s kettle and inventing the steam engine.

For the first time most of this evening’s meal comes from the garden. It’s been thin pickings from this new plot compared to recent years when by July we would have been feasting on allotment produce.

My mouth waters in anticipation of the earthy taste of chard and sweet carrots. I love eating things so soon after they come out of the ground or off the plant.

And as I stand there, something flips me back to a much younger self. It’s London in the early 80s and there I am, head over heels in love with the markets like Pimlico’s Warwick Way and Soho’s Berwick Street. I smile a little ruefully at my smugness in knowing the good places to buy food; but it’s nice to remember that child-like pride and pleasure in negotiating the stalls and heaps of produce, coming home with just what I wanted, lovely fresh things crying out to be cooked.

Back then the idea of growing anything other than a few herbs in pots never crossed my mind. I’ve got to know a different way of living, but colours, textures, tastes, the excitement of food are all the same. And at 53, with my hands in a sink full of green leaves, inside I feel just like myself at 23.

Except of course, back then I thought I’d always live in London…

Early morning beans

Quite a big kitchen garden

As said in the previous post, my mum and I spent a day seeing gardens in Norfolk, of which my favourite parts were, as they always are, the kitchen gardens. Those pictured above were are Houghton Hall where we also saw a collection of paintings which once belonged to Robert Walpole but have been living in Russia since his heirs sold them to Catherine the Great.

The Rembrandts, Van Dycks and the like filled me with wonder; the octagonal fruit cage pictured above aroused instead a childish covetousness. I don’t think we’ll have room for one quite that big…

Pot-head

Beginners' pots
I feel very lucky to have happened upon Newton Pottery where I go on Friday afternoons to play with clay. The class is friendly and laid back, each person making things in their own particular style, with help and guidance when needed. Nice chat, good coffee, a beautiful garden – what more could a girl want? Oh, and there’s the clay, wheel, kiln… magic.

I always manage to arrive late, as is my wont, and so a bit flustered; but while there, and as I drive home through pretty Lincolnshire villages, I always feel extraordinarily cheerful.

The dark pot at the back is my latest, brought home yesterday. It still has the weighty feel of a beginners’s pot, but not quite as much as the stripy one next to it. The smaller ones at the front are the least wonky of my efforts at throwing on the wheel.

More experienced hands than mine made the pots below, just some of those which fill our kitchen shelves. Some are gifts, others came from pottery studios, charity shops or French market stalls; some are old, some new, some cheap, others not so much. I love them all.

Use the tag ‘pottery’ at the end of this post to find earlier posts more or less about pottery or my visits to Newton.

Kitchen pottery

Why do they do that?

By which I mean, why do people plant leylandii hedges? I don’t wonder when I see an isolated house out on the fens: the square of tall conifers marking the boundary and providing a necessary windbreak. But, boy, do I wonder why in a village garden where you could just put up a fence for privacy or shelter.

image

Here are the stumps of ones cut down by daughter’s partner (see the wheels on the bus post). We’ve now felled another stretch along the back. They were planted by the people before the people we bought the house from; and they have been nicely kept, trimmed and dense with no brown straggly bits. But still, not what you want surrounding the beautiful, productive kitchen garden I have in my mind’s eye.

hedge

Here are the ones still to come down. I’m told some birds like to nest in them, so we’ll leave them now until the end of the summer, much though it pains me. There are quite a few pretty trees at the southern end of the garden – once the leylandii are gone, we’ll be able to see how much shade the nice trees cast!

branches

And here is one pile of trees and branches to be cut up and moved. Apparently the wood burns well once seasoned: how satisfying it will be to watch them sizzle of a winter evening! What a vandal I am.

Think of us slaving away / having fun over the next few days.