Another benefit of being a member of the Zythographer’s Union is that occasionally nice brewers send me beer through the post (and, since I don’t live in Maryland, I don’t have to be registered to receive it.) The only hitch is that Parcelfarce are a cretinous collection of cack-handed clowns, which means that when the package finally arrives, it won’t necessarily be in the state it was when it left the brewery. Surprise was absent, therefore, when I picked up a parcel that Hall and Woodhouse, owners of the Badger brewery, had sent me via Britain’s least-favourite delivery company and heard the sound of broken glass from inside.
Happily Parcelfarce had led itself down badly and smashed only one bottle, and the half-pint glass that accompanied the beers, while in the three attempts it made to deliver the package to me the spilt beer had dried out. Even more happily, the two bottles of Stinger, H&W’s new organic brew made, in part, with nettles (can you get unorganic nettles?), a beer that I haven’t been able to find in my neck of Middlesex, were still intact.
Humanity has been good for nettles, so it’s unkind of them to repay us by stinging so painfully. The plants need soils rich in phosphates, and, as Richard Mabey wrote in his marvellous Flora Britannica, “Human settlements provide phosphates in abundance, in cattle-pens, middens, bonfire sites, refuse dumps and churchyards.” Even long-abandoned human habitations continue to have nettles growing around them when there might not be any other nettles for miles, according to Mabey: “The wooded sites of Romano-British villages on the Grovely Ridge near Salisbury are still dense with nettles subsisting on the remains of an occupation that ended 1,600 years ago.”
The Roman word for nettle was urtica, from which comes the modern botanical name for the stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. Many books on herbs will try to tell you, wrongly, that urtica is derived from “uro”, “I burn” in Latin. This is the same sort of false Latin folk etymology that tried to derive cerevisia, the Roman word for beer, from Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest. Dictionaries prefer to say that urtica is “o.o.o.” – that’s “of obscure origin”, rather than the sound you make if you fall in a nettle-patch. Nettles are related, botanically, to hemp and hops: botanists still regard the three plants as monophylitic, that is, descended from one common ancestor, along with elder trees. mulberries and figs, and they used to put them all in an order called the Urticales. Since 2003, however, after DNA studies brought a truer picture of their descent, the “Urticales” have been subsumed into the order Rosales, along with a large number of other plants and trees, including roses, apples, strawberries, almonds and peaches.
Perhaps because prehistoric farmers found nettles rapidly colonising the land around their settlements, which meant no travelling was required to gather them, they were used as a resource in a variety of ways: Neolithic settlements in Switzerland have provided evidence that nettle fibre was spun into cloth before either linen or wool: the fibres of nettle stalks, when processed, make a strong, pure white thread that was used for fishing nets and fishing lines, as well as cloth. Maude Grieve’s A Modern Herbal says nettle fibres were still used to make sheets and tablecloths in Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries (which looks to be true, though other claims Grieve makes, such as the etymology of the word nettle, are far off target).
When Neolithic farmers were gathering nettles to make cloth, they were left with piles of stripped-off leaves, the inspiration, Jacqui Wood suggests in her book Prehistoric Cooking, for a wide range of dishes with nettle leaves in them. These include creamed nettles, cooked like spinach; fried nettles; nettle oatcakes; and boiled nettle pudding. In the spring, after a winter without fresh vegetables, nettle dishes would have been very welcome: young nettles are an excellent source of Vitamin C, as well as mineral salts. (The liquid that nettles have been boiled in, Wood says, incidentally, makes an excellent antiseptic for bathing cuts – and nettle juice also makes a good green dye.)
Boiled nettles can also be used instead of rennet to curdle milk for cheese-making: one variety of nettle cheese in the 17th century was called Slipcoat cheese, and was made by leaving the salted, drained, inch-thick curd to lie on nettle leaves for eight days, changing the leaves every day.
Other dishes containing nettles include nettle soup (regarded as “famine food” in the Saxon era, though later versions include potatoes, chicken stock and cream). C. Anne Wilson, in Food and Drink in Britain, suggests nettles were used as potherbs in England up to the 17th century, while “Scottish highlanders scorned garden plants and plucked nettles for their pottage.” Roger Phillips’s Wild Food says nettles were grown under glass in Scotland as “early kale”, and the wild variety was popular in broths, porridge and haggis. In Ireland, Phillips says, “A broth of water, nettles, salt, milk and oatmeal, called Brotchan Neanntog, was a favourite Irish dish until the cabbage became popular less than 200 years ago. Many of the poorer people still relied on Brotchan Neanntog to a considerable extent in the earlier part of the 20th century.”
The brewing of nettle beer, while every commentator agrees it went on, is mostly unrecorded as far as the details go, probably because it was strictly a rural activity carried out by the poor and illiterate. But most versions miss out both hops and malt. RogerPhillips has a recipe for nettle beer, which looks to date back at least to the 19th century, and which used 100 nettle stalks, with leaves, and 3lb of sugar to two and a half gallons of water. Another recipe, collected by Cindy Renfrow from a book published in 1925, requires “half a peck” (enough to fill a gallon bucket) of nettles to 2lb of sugar and five gallons of water. CJJ Berry, one of the fathers of modern home brewing in Britain, has the only recipe I have found using malt and hops: two gallons of nettles, 4lb of malt, one and a half pounds of sugar, two ounces of hops, and ginger, lemons and sarsaparilla too. Berry claims that nettles “were once used in making stouts”, though he gives no source.
Stephen Harrod Buhner describes nettle beer as “one of the sublime herb beers. The taste really is indescribable, being a blend of a number of flavours, a veritable gustatory extravaganza.” He is probably in a minority, however. I was lucky enough, about 1996, to have a pint of what must be one of the very few ever commercially produced draught nettle beers. It was made by one of the former Firkin chain of home-brew pubs in London as a springtime one-off to a recipe supplied, as I recall, by the uncle of the brewer. It was a hop-free beer with a green, herby taste, very pleasant once you accepted it for what it was, but different enough that the bar person in the Frigate and Firkin, behind Earls Court, insisted anyone trying it for the first time had an initial small glass to see if they wanted to go on for more.
One of the few other commercial unhopped nettle beers was the St Peter’s Brewery’s King Cnut, a development of their Millennium ale, made by the Suffolk-based brewery for the Millennium celebrations in 2000 to replicate the ales of a thousand years earlier. King Cnut, however, contained juniper berries, a Scandinavian tradition but not a British one, and for me the juniper was too much at the front. However, the beer seems to have disappeared from the St Peter’s range.
Now Hall and Woodhouse has teamed up with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who is evidently getting in touch with his brewing roots, to make a beer with nettles that have been gathered from Hugh’s farm in Dorset to make River Cottage Stinger. It’s a 4.5 per cent abv beer, dry-hopped with Challenger, Target and Styrian Goldings hops, and the hops are certainly well-forward in the flavour, with the nettles a green and slightly mysterious presence in the background, like a Wild Man of the Woods lurking on the edge of the picture.
It would make an excellent table beer, though I can’t agree with HF-W’s own suggestion that Stinger is “good with … winter roasts”, Roast chicken, yes, roast pork perhaps, but beef would swamp the subtlety that the nettles bring to the brew, and most roasts need a more caramelly ale than this is. One excellent set of matches would be with soft cheeses, and crumbly cheeses such as Wensleydale, where the herby flavours have a chance to show off. It would also be fun to drink Stinger with nettle dishes – fried nettles, creamed nettles, or (and here I’m definitely starting to feel hungry) a pork or salmon roulade with nettles instead of sage ….