I really like to forage for food. When we are in Canada, I go through the summer months enjoying the variety and abundance of beautiful wild berries. Some seasons are better than others, but I spend hours in the sunshine picking wild strawberries in June, red raspberries in July and the most delicious tiny blueberries in August, found on rocky points on top of some of my favorite mountains.
When we aren’t picking berries, we LOVE to pick mushrooms!! Each year is different, but every once in a while, we hit the jackpot, and our baskets are overloaded with spectacular bolete and chanterelle mushrooms. We can thank our Italian friend Miro for showing us how to pick and cook these beauties into spectacular risotto, a garnish for steak, or even an infused cocktail. He also turned us on to garlic scapes harvested from the forest, which make a fantastic pesto.
When we’ve traveled in Europe before, we’ve picked cherries off trees along the trail in Piedmont and plucked figs off trees in Denmark that are as sweet as honey. There is something really special about foraging for your own food! It is fresh and local – it doesn’t get much better!
We have Enjoyed Others Foraging for Us on other Trips to Europe
When traveling in Europe, we have had other people pick wild asparagus in Italy and cook it up in the evening for us to enjoy. We have taken fellow travelers on a truffle hunt and enjoyed a spectacular meal cooked by a sweet nonna who must put extra love in every morsel. Our guide on Mt. Etna helped us pick porcini mushrooms right along the trail so we could then cook a delicious meal with our friends back at our Airbnb when we were in Sicily.
Hearing About Nettle Soup while Staying in the United Kingdom
We have been very fortunate to be housesitting on the grounds of Highclere Castle recently, and we had the chance to enjoy a lovely lunch with a member of the Downton Abbey cast. She is the one who told us about nettle soup!
I had learned from another friend here on the grounds that you can make tea out of nettles. She talks about how good the tea is for you and indeed, nettles are filled with vitamin C and iron and they make a good tonic. She also told us that Roman soldiers brought nettles to the UK long ago, and whipped themselves with the plants so they would feel warm from the stings. I guess Britain was a bit colder than Italy and they had to figure something out to keep themselves warm – but nettles? Anyway, these were the stories I heard from my friend, but I had no idea that you could make nettles into a delicious soup! We had to give it a try – what better way to eat local?
How to Harvest your Stinging Nettles
My friend who makes the tea picks nettles with her bare hands. She’s 80 years old and her hands must be tough as nails, because when I tried this, I quickly learned why they are called “stinging nettles.” I highly recommend using gloves.
It’s best to harvest nettles in the early spring. March and April are best. We waited until May and had no problem finding what we needed, but you want to pick them when they are even younger. Pick only the tips – the first 4-6 leaves on each spear – in order to get the best of the plant.
Put on your gardening gloves or maybe even some rubber cleaning gloves and be sure to wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Then go for a nice walk, picking nettles alongside the road, until you have a nice bunch! Now you’ve had a lovely walk and you have the start of a nice dinner!
You’ll want to keep the gloves on while you wash the nettles thoroughly. Get rid of any bugs or grass and take the nettles off the stems and keep only the leaves, throwing the stalks away.
Believe it or not, once the stinging nettles hit any hot liquid, the sting goes away and you are left with a delicious green for your soup and other recipes! The flavor is somewhere between spinach and broccoli, or maybe cabbage, with a distinct taste of nettle. It’s wonderful! If you like greens, you’ll like nettles. If you don’t have access to nettles, I recommend using spinach.
Nettle Soup Recipe
5 cups Nettle Tops – carefully washed (or spinach)
3 Tablespoons of butter
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 leeks, trimmed, washed and finely sliced
2 celery sticks, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
2 Tablespoons white rice, such as basmati
1 quart vegetable (or chicken) stock
Freshly ground pepper
Pick over the nettles and wash them thoroughly. Throw away the tougher stalks.
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add chopped onion, sliced leeks, and the chopped celery and garlic. Cover the pot and sweat these ingredients gently for 10 minutes or so, stirring a few times, until they are soft but not brown.
Add the rice and the vegetable or chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
Add the nettles (or spinach), stirring them into the stock as they wilt. Simmer for 5 minutes or so, until the rice and the nettles (or spinach) are tender (very young nettles won’t take that long – they may only take 2-3 minutes).
Season with plenty of salt and pepper.
Purée the soup in 2 batches. Reheat if necessary and check the seasonings to make sure they are right.
Serve in warmed bowls. Top each portion with a nice spoonful of plain yoghurt (I recommend full fat for full flavor) and a generous sprinkling of snipped chives.
Many thanks to my friend who gave me this recipe which was written up by Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall from The Guardian.
I hope this will inspire you to look beyond your supermarket or local restaurant when you travel and enjoy what is truly unique to the area. You just might find something you’ve never tried before, like we did. Enjoy your nettle soup (even if you make it with spinach!)
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Betsy Ball – Betsy is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group trips to Europe. She is a passionate and culturally curious traveler who thoroughly enjoys sharing her love for exploring Europe with ETC clients. Prior to founding ETC, Betsy taught International Business at Tarleton State University in Texas (part of the A & M System) where she led study abroad trips to multiple European countries and other worldwide destinations. She retired from teaching in 2017 and now travels 9 months of the year in Europe. She has a degree in hotel, restaurant management from Michigan State University and an MBA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She also holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.
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