My son and I were holed up at home yesterday feeling sick and sorry for ourselves, so I dug out a lovely book I got 2nd hand last year - A Soothing Broth by Pat Willard (1998). The subtitle is Tonics, Custards, Soups and Other Cure-Alls for Colds, Coughs, Upset Tummies, and Out-of-Sorts Days.
It’s a mix of essays, anecdotes and old-fashioned recipes, detailing Willard's personal journey to rediscover the lost art of ‘invalid cooking’.
In one chapter, entitled The Change in Seasons, Willard writes:
It is an age-old tradition among most of the world’s population to produce specific brews from native plants and roots just for the fall and spring. The spring elixirs were formulated to purge the blood and organs of sluggish waste (the by-products of heavy food and inactivity) so the body would regain its strength for the summer months …
Spring tonics are foods or drinks that usually contain the young shoots of wild spring greens. And as Willard says, ‘If it can’t be scientifically proven that they purify the system, they certainly hit it with a vitamin wallop.’
I often get sick during seasonal changeovers. Maybe, I thought yesterday, what my son and I need is a spring tonic.
In her spring tonic recipes, Willard focuses mainly on dandelions, but elsewhere I’ve seen recipes using chickweed, nettles and cleavers.
Since we’ve got loads of cleavers in our garden, and since I’ve never done anything with it before except stick it to my clothes for momentary amusement - I decided to try that.
Raw cleavers leaves taste mild and slightly salty, and some have just a faint bitterness. The texture is unpleasant though - like eating velcro. Cleavers is, I've read, a perfect candidate for juicing.
I spent a good 20 minutes in the garden snipping off nice-looking bits and filling a colander. We don’t have a juicer, so I whizzed it up in the blender (stems, leaves and all), then squeezed it through muslin.
My son and I each had a couple of tablespoonfuls added to homemade lemonade. Later we added some to rosehip cordial.
Both were nice, but we preferred the lemonade combo. I've written down my Cleavers Lemonade recipe at my recipe journal blog.
My son and I have been having a gloomy day at home sick - so it was nice to look out the window and see a parcel in the letterbox. It was the long-awaited water kefir from Rebecca.
She's painstakingly grown a jar of water kefir grains for Deb and me to split between us.
In the parcel she also included detailed instructions on looking after them (which I for one will need), PLUS a small jar of her very own Kaitaia sourdough starter.
The idea is that Rebcca and I will do a sourdough swap by post - except I'm not able to meet my end of the bargain until the weather warms up a little and I'm game to try making one again. (I started one last summer, kept it going for several weeks, and made several loaves of bread, before one day accidentally washing out the dough bowl without saving any.)
I really love this idea of swapping wild ferments from different parts of the country by post. I wonder how much the microbial colonies vary from region to region. I was fascinated to take a sniff of Rebecca's starter - it smells quite different from the way I remember mine. It's more vigorous than mine ever was, too. It was bubbling away like anything, and I had to open the jar verrrrry slowly.
This is an overgrown patch of city council land, just across the road from us.
I got so excited yesterday when I was walking past it and suddenly saw - in amongst all the usual puha and onionweed and nasturtium and chickweed and black nightshade and hemlock - that single, little nettle plant.
To spot it you'll probably have to click on the pic to make it big. (And if by any chance you think I've misidentified it, and it's not an Urtica at all, but just a dead-nettle or something like that ... do let me know, but break it to me gently!)
On our wild foraging email list there's been some talk of nettles, and one member's enthusiasm for their nutritional and medicinal qualities is catching. I've been hoping for a few weeks to find some growing wild, but couldn't recall ever seeing any in my neighbourhood. Then suddenly - there it was.
Here it is close up. Now what shall I do with it ...? Cook up some leaves for our dinner? Gather some and dry them for tea? Take cuttings and try and grow some more in our back yard?
It's a lot to ask of one little plant. Perhaps I'll just let it be for a few days while I think about it. (And wait to see if anyone pulls the rug out from under my feet and tells me it's not a real nettle at all ...)