Back to basics...
Paul Hyett, 14 September 2021
Earlier this month I decided to make nettle soup, never having done it before . A little investigation revealed dozens of recipes, and two principal types of UK nettle (many exist worldwide). Originally native to Europe, our shores are frequented by ‘Common Nettles’ sometimes referred to as ‘Dead Nettles’ and ‘Stinging Nettles’ – the former so nick-named because although very similar in appearance to the dreaded stinger, they offer no harm. They also have more flowers, with very pretty white and lilac petals in abundant clusters at the top of the stem.
Both edible, the flowers and the green leaves are at their best in spring, but undaunted by this, I set off to our local woods in search of 400 grams worth. Wow, it’s surprising how widely I had to search. I thought they were everywhere, but it took quite a while until, at last, I managed to find a large and luscious nettle bed and snipping away soon filled my bag.
Now to my selected recipe: a carrot, leek, potato, and that best of chef’s friends the onion; each chopped, sliced, or diced as appropriate, and cooked in a little oil. Then to work on the nettles. Picking the leaves was laboriously slow but I soon learned to hold the plant near its top and drag my gloved hand down the length of the stalk. This was an effective way of swiftly stripping the leaves and flowers so that the inedible stalks could be discarded. The former are an easy source of fibre, rich in vitamin A as well as offering plentiful supplies of dietary calcium, iron, and protein.
Apart from being a nutritious vegetable, nettles have for centuries been used as an alternative medicine for conditions as diverse as arthritis and enlarged prostate glands. I kid you not: research has revealed that this powerful plant may ‘prevent the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone’. Apparently, stopping that process can reduce prostate size – something for over-50 males to note!
Whilst stirring my scrumptious green nettles into the litre of simmering vegetable stock that, I contemplated the importance of ‘cooking’ in making most foodstuffs edible. For, even if starving, I could hardly contemplate tucking into a raw bunch of nettles as I would a banana, or an apple – although the Basques have eaten both raw common and stinging nettles for centuries. They are apparently much favoured by those hardy peoples as a flavouring ingredient for omelettes.
We of course need heat, and much of it, to make nettles edible and that is where the kitchen came in at the dawn of time for so much of our cooking: then in the form of a simple pit and surround at the front of the cave, or other primitive shelter, where fuel could be laid and food suspended on skewer or rack to be cooked directly over flame, simmered in boiling waters, or fried in pans amidst fats and oils. Essentially the cooking of meats was necessary to kill unwelcome bacteria whilst cooking vegetables was required for the practical purpose of breaking down their fibres to a point of digestibility.
In recent times, despite what designer chefs might have us think, we have lost sight of the fact that cooking is fundamentally about making raw foodstuffs safe and digestible (hence the basic requirement for heat and plenty of it) rather than tasty and beautiful. Beyond that, cooking should be primarily about health, that critical agenda which the likes of Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall now champion with such laudable energy.
Since the cave and other early forms of primitive shelter, the placing of the heat source for cooking became far more flexible as domestic architectures matured: inboard ‘fires’ were transferred from entrance to basements, further away from outside walls, and then ever higher up within buildings as great hearths were connected to extensive and sophisticated chimney systems through which oxygen was supplied, flames controlled, and the products of combustion exhausted.
Until the 1960s, the chimney breast and chimneys themselves were the primary structural and constructional element of all our houses, irrespective of size. Domestic design work often started with plans and sections organised around the chimney which, big or small, contributed richly to the internal and external aesthetics of both individual houses and streets in general. It is gratifying in this respect to see that with the eco-agenda now driving us firmly towards sustainable design, we are again seeing energy collection and distribution as a key driver in architectural form and language.
New power sources, in the form of gas and then electricity, made cooking easier with faster variation in heat outputs, greater efficiencies in space requirements, and more flexibility in terms of location: the new cooker could be located anywhere in the kitchen, and most important of all, it had no need of being near a chimney. Indeed chimneys, and those chimney breasts that had for so long been the dominant feature of all our rooms, were no longer needed at all!
Despite a general diminishing of dependence on our kitchens resulting from ‘take-away’ food, and our frequent habit of dining out, little would change with the modern cooker. Yes, ovens have increasingly been separated or split from hobs, controls have become more sophisticated with features such as automatic timers that would switch burners on and off to pre-programmed schedules, warming drawers and the much loved ‘self-cleaning’ oven arrived, but only as the 21st century dawned did a radical new exploration of ‘cookers’, and their purpose with regard to the rituals of cooking, begin to challenge old norms. Now this is happening more and more. For example, one friend of mine has selected a stunning gas hob arrangement all of 1200 mm wide that sits proudly as the central feature of her newly designed kitchen.
It’s not just about appearance and utility; it’s about the choreography as well. Last month friends invited us to supper and there, built into the end of their generously large kitchen island around which we sat, was another example of that very same stunning hob. Our host proceeded to cook each course, with all the confidence of a celebrity chef, whilst facing us and chatting as if to a tv camera. Indeed, all those cooking programmes have pushed us in a completely new direction: to cook is to entertain. No longer can you escape to the kitchen or hide in a corner facing the wall: the shared cooking experience is as important as the eating.
Just for now I’m going to keep my kitchen as it is. Nettle soup is a demanding dish in terms of elegance in preparation. It’s difficult to chat and look your guests in the eye as you grab a dock-leaf to soothe the stinging red rash caused by those trichomes that adorn the stems and underside of nettle leaves, poised menacingly and ever ready to inject histamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and a variety of other toxins that generate a pain to my forearm equal only to the damage to my ego.
Maybe I too will get a new designer hob, but for now I’ll happily carry on as before, preparing my dishes ahead of the day, from a conventional cooker set securely back against the wall.