January 20, 2023
Dear Frenchly Readers,
Outside my window, the world is all white. Inside I have been reading about a curious French green soup.
Get back to the snow for a moment: Here is the snow I have been waiting for, hoping for, refusing to believe would never come again. The kind Dylan Thomas describes in A Child’s Christmas in Wales as “shawling” out of the sky. Snow that keeps falling, piling up and making the whole world a giant, cold pillow. It’s the snow I remember from my own childhood when we used to make forts and snow people and animals. The snow I remember from my children being younger, just a few years ago, really, when we would stay out for hours building an igloo or sledding. Though my teenager is still sleeping as I write this, my youngest is already out there, it’s barely gone 8 AM, with two boys from our neighborhood, hitting the slope behind our house with a small red sled and a pocketful of big dreams. Soon, I will put down my computer and pull on my snow pants to go make a snow angel or two.
But for now, I want to take you down the rabbit hole of a vibrant emerald green soup made from stinging nettles, something the French call, “La soupe aux orties.” This week, I happened upon an article published on Frenchly back in 2015. What I saw was a resplendently green soup and the words, “Stinging Nettle Soup.” I looked up the author, Cécile Delarue, and found that she is a French food blogger, with a channel on YouTube and two cookbooks, one optimistically called The Everything Easy French Cookbook. Here is her old blog (she’s moved on to sleeker platforms) and the top recipe is for Stinging Nettles soup. In that post, she tells a story about her grandfather who was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II. She writes, “There was the day it had snowed so much that they had to dig a tunnel in the snow to get out of their room…And then, there was the soupe d’orties.” She describes how the meagre potato soup her grandfather and his fellow French prisoners were given was watery at best, but that they foraged for stinging nettles and transformed that stone soup: “‘Of course you can eat stinging nettles’, he would say, ‘we would pick some and add it in the soup in Germany, and it changed everything!’”
Stinging nettles, as you might know, are native to Northern Europe. Long known for their medicinal and culinary qualities, the French have been foraging for nettles in the mountains, hills and dales of the countryside for hundreds of years, adding them to soups, chèvre, quiches, and even beer. The stinging part comes from hollow stinging hairs called trichomes, which are all up and down the stem and cover the leaves of the nettle. The trichomes break off upon contact, and, rather like hypodermic needles, inject a combination of self-protective chemicals (histamine, serotonin —yup the stuff in antidepressants—formic acid —like ants have—and acetylcholine) into the skin, creating a burning or stinging sensation. Interestingly, the juice of the plants’ own leaves are the best antidote for the sting. Also, Dock leaves, which grow alongside nettles, are also a good antidote. The plants are wind pollinated; the male and female parts grow on separate plants.
To pick nettles you need gloves. But, apparently, a few hours after being picked, they are no longer able to sting. Sort of like a bee that only has one sting in it. (Which reminds me of when we were in the Dordogne last summer and I got out of the car near a sunflower field and thought I’d been stung by a bee. Later, after we all got stung on our legs our host and friend, Noelle, told us it was stinging nettles we’d gotten into. And indeed, the pain did subside rather quickly. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say they made me smart with pain.) Even so, to eat them, it is recommended that you par boil or blend them. They have the highest amount of protein of any plant grown in the U.S., more calcium than milk, and rival spinach for useable iron. Also, this wonder plant has the hugest amount of chlorophyll of any plant and according to this source, is “high in vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and K, as well as copper, manganese and calcium. It is described as being ‘an astringent, diuretic, tonic, anodyne, pectoral, rubefacient, styptic, anthelmintic, nutritive, alterative, anti-rheumatic, anti-allergenic, anti-lithic/lithotriptic, haemostatic, stimulant, decongestant, hypoglycemic, expectorant, anti-spasmodic, and anti-histamine’”
Ok, this is a wonder plant. I am rushing to the health food store as soon as the snow stops to get a bottle of nettle capsules. And, as soon as spring comes, I am keeping my eyes peeled for them at the farmers market. I might get lucky: I will be in France in April. Apparently that is when they start showing up in markets there. You know I’ll be making a batch of this soup in our Airbnb in Lyon if I find them. If you are lucky enough to be in France in April, too, there are even festivals for celebrating the herbaceous nettle. Here is one such festival in Normandy called “Nettle Madness!” The French have a nettle saying, too: “faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties,” or, “do not push granny into the nettles.” In other words, let’s be careful not to abuse the situation. In English we say that irritating someone is to “nettle” them.
The Native Americans have used nettles for labor pains, arthritis and asthma for thousands of years. The Abenakis, native to where I live in Maine, snuffed dried nettles for nosebleeds.
Remember, with nettles and everything else, the instruction is, always, never take too much—only what you need, and use every part of the plant (stems for tea, leaves for soup).
And when the world gets too much, remember Hotspur, who said in Henry IV, “out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Always look for the flower in any situation. Today my cold flower is snow and more snow.
À cuisiner, regarder et lire çe weekend:
I am rewatching Slings and Arrows with my older son. It’s a Canadian show about an ersatz and totally dysfunctional Shakespearean theatre company. It is beyond hilarious and absurd.
French movies abound at Sundance this winter, and some are coming soon to a theatre near you. Andrea Meyer has a new Le Ciné, below, all about what to look out for, including Fairyland, based on the book by her good friend, Alysia Abbott.
To cook: Depending on where you are, you might not be able to make any nettle soup quite yet. But…I have another idea for you. You all know how much I love Dorie Greenspan. I am totally into a “Stone Age Bread” she’s writing about this week. I can’t wait to make it. As she says on her Substack, “It’s a bread, but there’s no flour in it, no yeast either. It’s really like a trail mix held together with eggs, oil and the oven’s heat. It’s dense — in the best way. The texture is chewy. The flavors are comforting. And I think the look is great.”
To read: This profile in The New Yorker of the bizarre, satirical Iranian American artist, Tala Madani, is worth a gander. Her subject is men, but she’s not necessarily mean. As Calvin Tomkins writes, “The harmless dopes in Madani’s early work gave way to middle-aged, potbellied, bearded losers, whose weird plights make us laugh.”
Ok, that’s it for today. I’m going out into the white and green woods.
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