By today’s standards, my primary school was pretty adventurous. We had a thing called ‘Adventure Club’, where they’d take a busload of us on the weekends, drop us off in some random, remote location and we’d have to make our own, largely unguided, way through the bush back to the bus. And this is the precise reason they didn’t teach us Latin the school – they didn’t want us to know that the school motto meant ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, or however you say ‘harden the f up, it’s only a brown snake’.
I have one memory of being in the Bunya Mountains, and in order to make it back to the bus in time, we basically trekked for two hours up a dry creek bed full of stinging nettles. Admittedly it was a lot of fun, but at times it was hell. And so went your average Adventure Club day out.
One day in December last year, Matt, Lady dog and I decided to take the scenic route from the farm back to Brisbane, and our path took us straight through the Bunya Mountains. Growing in abundance alongside of the road was none other than the dreaded nettle. Lucky for Matt, he went to a slightly more forward-thinking primary school, and the sight of these plants didn’t send him into an irrational nervous sweat. Instead, he gazed in wonder at all the ‘free food’ growing on the side of the road, lovingly recalling an episode of The River Cottage where foraging hero Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made three or four inspired dishes from the plant.
So the next time we took this route, just a few weeks ago, we stopped and picked a big shopping bag full of nettles. The next evening I set about facing fears and cooked them, using Hugh F.W.’s recipe for Nettle Spanakopitta. It’s a simple recipe, which involves two stages of cooking: firstly, making the onion/nettle mixture, and secondly, cooking the assembled dish in the oven. But I learned a few valuable lessons, set out below:
1. Don’t eat the mixture after the first cooking stage!! Wait until it has come out of the oven and it’s properly cooked. I casually tried the mixture before the oven stage, because I am impatient and greedy. And so I learned my lesson the hard way. If you do this just know that the leaves will still have a sting to them, and this will send you flailing around searching for an epi pen that you know you don’t own, because for a minute there you thought you were eating spinach and nothing was making sense.
2. Pick the nettles early in the season – ie. spring, not mid-summer. By the time we got around to picking them, the stalks and leaves were beginning to get a bit tough, and they weren’t the lovely, young fresh leaves that I guess would taste much better.
3. Wear gloves and wash the boards, utensils and surfaces really well when you’re done.
I won’t take any more fun out of it. #YOLO, right?! Don’t wear gloves and eat it raw if you must. It will be a night to remember.
Nettle spanakopitta by Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall
Around 300g nettle tops
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 large onion, peeled and finely sliced
1 tsp thyme leaves
100g soft goat’s cheese or feta, broken into small chunks
35g pine nuts, toasted (or roughly chopped cashews)
A squeeze of lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
250g filo pastry
75g unsalted butter, melted
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Pick over the nettles and wash thoroughly. Discard the tougher stalks. Bring a large pan of well-salted water to boiling point and throw in the nettle tops. Bring back to a boil, blanch for a couple of minutes, then drain in a colander. When the nettles are cool enough to handle, squeeze to extract as much water as possible, then chop finely.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the cumin, cook for a minute or two, then add the onion and sauté for five to 10 minutes, until soft and golden. Add the thyme. Combine the squeezed nettles with the onion mixture, then gently fold in the cheese and pine nuts. Season with a squeeze of lemon and plenty of salt and pepper, then stir in the egg.
Brush a sheet of filo pastry with melted butter and lay it butter side down in a smallish, 1.5-litre ovenproof dish.** Let any excess pastry hang over the ends. Lay another buttered filo sheet on top and repeat until you’ve used all but one sheet of filo. Spread the nettle mixture in the dish, fold over the overhanging pastry ends to enclose, dabbing with more melted butter to keep it together. Take the final sheet of pastry, crumple it lightly, and place on top, tucking in the edges around the side – this will give the top of the pie a nicely textured finish. Dab more butter on top, bake for 30-35 minutes, or until golden, and serve immediately.
Recipe from: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/mar/30/nettle-recipes-hugh-fearnley-whittingstall
**I made ours in little, individual oven-proof dishes as we had a smaller quantity of leaves to start with.
The verdict? Despite my love of pastry, olive oil and feta, I wasn’t overly taken with it. Could be that my taste buds were traumatised for reasons explained above. Matt on the other hand is far more adventurous and stoic than I am. He did enjoy it, and would eat it again.