In La Haye-de-Routot, in Upper Normandy, is a collection of heritage museums exploring aspects of Norman and French culture: traditional bread making (which I have written about here), the history of clogs, the linen house, and La Chaumière aux orties, a celebration of all things nettle. That’s right: l’ortie piquante, the common and much hated stinging nettle.
I am a city girl, and nettles, like cow dung, are annoyances, to be got past quickly, ideally gotten rid of. I only remember one sort of nettle celebration in my childhood. At the boys’ boarding school my brother attended in the South Downs in the late 1970s, there was a field of nettles, thigh-high. The small boys would run through the nettles, their bare, white legs sticking out under grey flannel shorts. It was a badge of honour, to show no pain.
In fact, the nettle has long been celebrated for its many good qualities: as a medicinal herb, a nutritious food, and as fibrous material used in canvas and rope. The nettle is rich in vitamins, iron and protein. It is known for its re-vitalizing qualities and is used both as a tea plant and as a vegetable.
On some Sundays at La Chaumière aux orties there are cooking demonstrations. We were lucky enough to visit on a damp August afternoon. Shivering in our thin summer clothes, we were delighted to find a huge open hearth, a pot bubbling away, and a delicious smelling spread of food on a table: beignets, crumbles, cups of warm soup, a pie.
A chef was giving a demonstration of open hearth cooking and handing out recipes. She invited us to taste. Of course we accepted. It was only as the food was going into our mouths – including the mouths of our young daughters – that I noticed the basket of nettles on the hearth, and the pictures of nettles on the wall. I asked my husband what an ortie was. Too late.
And just as well, because the recipes were delicious. The soup, the beignets, the crumble and the pie: all wonderful, and not a hint of sting. Even our daughters went back for more.
I took copies of the recipes with the best intentions. But I’m having a hard time reconciling the hated nettle with that delicious food. Maybe soon I’ll get over it, put on my gloves, and go nettle collecting. There’s a forest of nettles along the side of the path at the end of our garden, just waiting for me.