If you drive along English country lanes at this time of year, it would be easy to dismiss the green blur of the verges as simply boring grass. But slow down to a walking pace and in amongst the different types of grass you can see so much more. The first leaves of cow parsley, a forerunner of the frothy flowers that will line the roads in a few weeks vie for growing space with the bright green new growth of stinging nettles; a mouse scuttles through the undergrowth to safety and a frog sits motionless, blending into the undergrowth until it suddenly catapults into action; cleavers and speedwell spread outwards beside the first flowering primroses.
Best of all, nestled in the undergrowth, are beautiful violets, their colours ranging from white with the merest hint of violet through to a deep, rich purple with the colour offset by their shiny green leaves. Turn off the road and walk along a public footpath and you’ll probably find even more. Just now, there’s enough violets to put in a small jug on the bedside table but before long there’ll be plenty to make a small batch of violet syrup or violet liqueur.
Naturally, there’s no shortage of stinging nettles and this is an excellent time of year to use them. At the weekend, I snipped off the heads of a few nettles to make scones. There were comments around the table that normal people don’t eat nettle scones or, for that matter, the violet infused milk jellies that we ate for supper. But why don’t we eat more nettles? They’re abundant, they’re free and are right on trend as foraged food but without the poisoning worries of foraging for fungi.
Use the top six or seven leaves of a young plant and cut them straight into a colander so that you don’t have to handle them or wear rubber gloves to avoid stinging your hands. Rinse the leaves, picking out any insects or stray blades of grass you may have inadvertently cut and tip the leaves into a bowl. Pour on enough boiling water to cover the nettles and leave for a couple of minutes. Fish out the wilted leaves, which will no longer sting and squeeze out the excess moisture. Apart from Nettle Soup, which everyone seems to have heard of but I think is slightly overrated, you can use nettles to make a hedgerow pesto, green soda bread or as a replacement for spinach in many recipes. Or try the Nettle Scone recipe below. Eat them warm, spread generously with butter.
Go on, live a little dangerously.
To make Nettle Scones:
225g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
60g butter, cubed
Tops of 7 or 8 nettles wilted and drained as above
1 tablespoon of chopped chives
40g strong cheddar cheese cubed or grated
2 dessertspoons plain yoghurt
Put the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and rub in the butter.
Chop the nettles and add to the bowl with the chives and cheese.
Stir in the yoghurt and enough milk to bring the mixture together in a soft but not sticky dough. Tip out the dough onto a floured surface and quickly pat into a round about 4 cms thick. Cut into 4 (or 6) wedges and put them close together on a lightly greased baking sheet.
Brush the tops with milk and bake 220C for about 15 minutes when they should be risen and golden. Wrap in a tea towel and transfer to a wire tray.
Best eaten warm.