Springtime in the Bronze Age

DSC_0055 - Copy“It was a brave man,” said Jonathan Swift, “who first ate an oyster.” There are other culinary conundrums that come to mind when it comes to food which is disgusting or downright lethal without proper preparation, such as:

How did we know wheat would be good to eat if we dried it, husked it, ground it, mixed it with water and baked it? Otherwise it’s just grass.

Fugu (pufferfish) is a delicacy but if improperly prepared is lethal. How many test subjects did chefs go through to find out how to properly prepare it?

Cassava or manioc is a major food staple in much of the world, but before eating it must be dried, ground into flour, soaked for 24 hours, dried again, then toasted, otherwise you may as well just swallow a cyanide capsule. Who found this out?

Who first looked at a Twinkie and said, “you know, I bet I could deep fry that?”

Why did anyone ever eat a nettle?

The theme of this post is glorious, glorious spring. Spring is here! Green things are erupting from the earth and Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” is running through my head. The farmer’s market is open, and big bags of new nettles are for sale for the only time in the year.

Nettles have been a food since at least the bronze age. We know this because in 2011 in the Cambridgeshire fens an archaeological dig uncovered a bunch of canoes, swords and baskets dating from 1000BC, perfectly preserved by the peat. Inside one of the canoes was a bowl with the spoon still in it, and inside the bowl was nettle soup. (One does have to wonder, however, what happened to the people who suddenly ran away from their canoes, swords and baskets and half-eaten lunch, leaving them behind long enough to be buried with layers of peat. History is weird sometimes.)

In Sweden, nettles are eaten to celebrate spring’s arrival, in a soup with minimum extra ingredients to emphasize the sheer popping spring-ness of the nettles. Traditionally, the nettles are boiled to remove the sting, chopped up with other weeds such as chervil and fennel, and returned to the boiling water with onions and salt. This is eaten with eggs. Note that this recipe includes nothing which wasn’t commonly available in the bronze age in Europe: weeds, onions, salt water, and eggs. It’s also very good, but I have taken the liberty of including pepper which wasn’t available in the bronze age unless you happened to be in Asia, and omitting the eggs, because I had eggs for breakfast.

Nettle Soup for Spring

1 bag fresh nettles

Enough salty water to boil the nettles and no more

½ onion

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon flour

A few sprigs parsley

freshly ground pepper

First of all, you must cope with the terror that is nettles. If you go out picking them, wear gloves. If you are a coward like me and buy them in a bag at the Farmer’s Market, carry them home gingerly at arm’s length making sure not a single leaf brushes near any part of the flimsy plastic wall separating your hand from the Weed That Bites. Put them down on the counter and watch for a while to make sure they don’t make any sudden moves, then bring some water to boil.

They are watching me.

They are watching me.

How much water? Well, the point of this dish is to taste the nettles, so no more water than you will need to make the eventual soup. For me, this was about 6 cups in a large stock pot for a plastic bag full of nettles. If you use more, you will end up throwing away water, which means throwing away flavor. So use just enough to blanch them and make the stock afterwards. The nettles will shrink when boiling, like spinach.

When the water is at a killing boil, throw in the nettles stems and all (using tongs or upending the bag) and laugh maniacally as the stinging hairs loaded with acetylocholine, histamine and formic acid are neutralized, rendering the leaves helpless to your devilish plans. Let them boil for three minutes. Envision your throat swelling closed after you sample your first spoonful of soup and let them boil a couple of minutes more. When you are feeling brave, drain the nettles (preserving the cooking liquid) and shock the leaves in ice water. This is called blanching and it preserves the color, which is at least half the reason to cook with such a malevolent ingredient.

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You will see in the picture that the water the nettles have been cooked in (left) appears deep brown. It is not. It is in fact, as you will see if you let some dribble from a ladle, lovely deep green. Green so deep the green-receptors in your eyes fail and you can only perceive brown. Or something. And the smell! Here is the scent of spring! A combination of newly mown grass, fresh horse dung (you know you like it, admit it), open fields, hedgerows, soft rain falling on rustic church steeples in Scandinavian villages, etc. You only have to smell it to know spring has truly arrived and the green things are returning. (Before you use this water for stock, however, pour it off slowly into another container, leaving the grit in the first. Nothing ruins a good refined soup like the crunch of grit between the teeth.)

Squeeze out water from the nettles (no gloves required, just your hands. Come on. Do it.) and chop them to prevent long stringy fibers clotting your soup. Chop up some parsley too, while you are at it – this is a herb soup, so you can add chervil or chives or anything green. Just don’t overdo it – it’s all about the nettles.

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Heat up a lump of butter. Chop up half an onion and two cloves garlic. Sautee the onion and garlic until they are soft but not browning. Throw in the nettles and sprinkle with a tablespoon of flour. Stir well and add a few ladles of your nettle stock, until you reach a nice runny consistency.

Blend it as smooth as you like – I think the smoother, the better. Reheat it with a splash of milk. Sprinkle it with pepper, eat it, and be grateful. Spring.

15 comments to Springtime in the Bronze Age

  • war pig

    Nettles also make an excellent tea (or infusion, correctly) which has vitamin C and wards off scurvy. A tea made from boiling pine needles will do the same. Nettle stings can also work on arthritis as do honeybee stings.

    I wonder who discovered that poke sallat was edible if you ate only the newest shoots or else boiled the rest three times in fresh water to remove the tremendous amounts of vitamin A it possesses? I also wonder how many died before we knew which of the fungus (I lust after morels) were safe to consume, and which were deadly. I suppose humans used captives or slaves to test new foods, much as Ringo Starr was used in “Caveman” to test the intoxicating berries.

    Of course, we can look to many foods other animals eat. If birds or monkeys eat a food it is usually safe for us. Pigs, on the other hand, can tolerate quite serious amounts of toxins without apparent harm.

    Like you, I also wonder about how our ancestors puzzled out the process in how to cook manioc, and in how to make tapioca. My American Indian ancestors learned that some nuts had to be cooked before they were edible (most especially acorns); and also how to take roots and make sassafras tea (and beer) or to drink willow bark tea as a source of aspirin (Indians would smoke it as well for pain relief).

    I guess our prehistoric ancestors weren’t the dumb, unibrowed, grunting brutes we like to let on, eh? ;-)

  • war pig

    OBTW, how was the soup?

  • Actually, very delicious. Sort of glowing with brightness and healthiness.

  • Muzhik

    @Daniel, are you sure that wasn’t some lingering radioactive material that didn’t get boiled out in the stock? Or perhaps some alkaloid that got mixed in with the nettles?

    A gardener friend of mine once told me that jimsonweed got its name from the Hessian mercenaries. During the Revolutionary War, as they were attacking Jamestown, some of the mercs made a soup by throwing in whatever was green with whatever they were cooking. Along with dandelions went some of this plentiful weedy stuff. The resulting delirium and sickness experienced by some of the soldiers was enough to put them off ever eating these plants again. These German soldiers gave it the name “jimsonweed” after Jamestown.

  • war pig

    Whatever the origin of the name, Ohio prisons have an active jimsonweed eradication project going on, as prisoners like to collect and use the stuff when they can.

  • Muzhik

    @War Pig, Speaking of “formerly inedible things being beaten into eaten” I had mentioned at the beginning of March that my daughter had convinced me to live on Indian food for a few weeks. I’m pleased to say that I survived; I managed to hold out for three weeks until two things happened: I caught a really bad cough and wanted comfort food (”And I want it now!” ); and my daughter got tired of actually having to plan a menu and cook dinner every night. (Gee, honey, my heart bleeds.)

    One thing that I gave in and made was seitan. Surprise, surprise, it was very tasty! The only reason I haven’t made it since is that it was tasty because I used vegetable broth, not water, and that stuff gets expensive fast. But now I know that yes, meat substitute can taste good. The only problem I had was that I just couldn’t seem to squeeze enough of the moisture out to really use it in stir fry.

  • war pig

    Hmmmm. I am almost tempted to give it a go. Glad you survived the experiment. In ‘Nam, when we could not carry C-rats on deep patrol (LRRP), we lived off of rice balls w/raisins, canned Spam and Spam jerky.

    I still love Spam to this day and eat it at least weekly.

  • Muzhik

    @War Pig, I’ve got nothing against Spam(c) so long as it’s properly fried.

    @Daniel, I am making the plunge this weekend. I’ve found a really good pastry recipe, I’ve got a bunch of pork bones and some cheesecloth, and I have both pork steak and bacon. I’m going to make a meat pie just like you described a few weeks back.

    (BTW, I found the best way to actually make the pastry is to put the dry ingredients into a gallon zip-lock, followed by the frozen butter cut into cubes; zip the bag shut and start using a rolling pin to mix the butter and flour. When it’s time to add the ice water, don’t use water, use vodka that you’ve been keeping in the freezer.)

    I’m off to cut the fat off the bacon to melt it down to use for the pie crust. Yum!

  • Muzhik

    Update: The bacon came from a box of ends and pieces from a processing plant about an hour’s drive from here — 5lbs for $6. Can’t beat that with a stick. Being ends and pieces, there are a lot of big chunks of bacon, a lot of big chunks of fat, and a lot that are half-and-half. I chopped up the fat and put it in a COVERED frying pan to cook down, and chopped up the bacon meat while I was waiting. I wound up with about 1.25 lb of chopped bacon. After cooking down and pouring off the bacon fat, I was left with the “crumbles”, solid bits of bacon flavor which I’m going to add to things like scrambled eggs and biscuits.

    An alternative to the frying pan method (which I use for cooking down beef fat to make tallow for soap) is to chop up the fat and cook it in the microwave. Every so often you pour the liquid into a bowl of ice water, and throw more fat into the microwave. After chilling the stuff in the bowl overnight, you pry up a solid disk of tallow and scrape the gunk off the bottom of it, and you’re ready to make soap. (The water and gunk goes into your compost pile.) I could have done that here, but I’ve found a key to keeping bacon drippings from going rancid is to cook ALL the water out of it. Can’t do that in a microwave.

    Shameless plug: if you’re ever in eastern Iowa and need to feed your carnivore, find a Fareway grocery. You’ll find them in many of the small towns, and in a few of the cities. Although they don’t say so explicitly, while they have some of the national brands (Tyson, etc.) most of their meat and lots of their veggies comes from local producers. Since they don’t have the huge shipping and storage costs, they can price their meat competitively per pound with the other food chains. It also means you get more flavorful meat and veggies. Example: The larger chains sell poults (adolescent birds), Fareway sells adult chickens. Not only is there more meat on the bones (Fareway chicken hindquarters weigh between 30% and 50% more than a Tyson hindquarter) but the meat actually tastes like chicken is supposed to taste — subtle, as opposed to bland.

    (Guess where I got my pork and bacon.)

  • Keep us updated. I like the pastry tip as well, it’s not something I ever manage to my satisfaction. I bought a pork jowl this week which has delicious fat. I’m going to make longanisa sausage.

  • Muzhik

    @Daniel, Mmmmm… yum on the sausage. But don’t post any pictures of you making it. I love sausage too much to want to know how it’s made.

    Frankly, right now I’m bummed. I have never made stock before and didn’t know the details. I got my ingredients together and had it at a nice simmer, but for how long? That’s when I found out that my two major cookbooks didn’t cover making stock. When I DID find out that the stuff should simmer for 8 hours, well, that kinda blew away my idea of having the pie for dinner tonight.

    Anyway, I got my pork chopped. The two pork steaks together sans bones gave me 1.6 lbs of meat. Together with the bacon that gives me about 2.75 lbs meat — hopefully enough.

    I strained the stock after about 6 hours; I let it cool a bit so I could scrape the fat off. Now it’s back on the stove simmering and (hopefully) reducing.

    I have spent the whole day in the kitchen working on this. I think I’ll make the pastry, put it in the fridge overnight along with the jelly, kick back, and watch Casablanca with my daughters.

  • Yup, stock takes time all right. It’s the kind of thing you make when you are doing something else but don’t mind wandering into the kitchen now and then. If you want to make a jellied stock that will set when it gets cold, you really need to boil those bones down. I wish I had more specific words of wisdom, but for me stock is more of a feeling I have built up over the years.

    Sausage making proceeds. Don’t worry, nothing nasty is going in. Unless you could pig cheek as nasty.

  • Muzhik

    Update: Pie is in the oven. Boy, those four-and-twenty blackbirds are sure quiet…

    Seriously, I keep telling myself that it’s only my first attempt at something like this. I got up this morning and made the pastry. FWIW, I used the recipe that I got off the “Joe Pastry” web site (http://www.joepastry.com/category/pastry-components/pie-dough/). I used half-butter half-bacon drippings. I used cream cheese in the first mix but only because I had some around. I’ve found I can substitute an equal weight of organic vegetable shortening if I don’t have the cream cheese around. I also increased the flour to 2 and 1/4 cups, because I’m too lazy to measure flour in tablespoons. And (as I mentioned before) I used vodka that had been in the freezer instead of water.

    When it came time to build the shell, I recalled your words about pinching up the dough “like a potter” and I remembered how my high school art teacher gave up on me because every piece of pottery I tried to make exploded in the kiln.

    Finally I used butter and parchment paper to line a small casserole dish I’ve had since I-don’t-know-when, and used that to build up the base. I finally got something that’s about 6″ across and 5″ tall. I filled it with the meat & bacon mix, capped it and took some pictures. I didn’t know how well the base would cook inside the dish, so I lifted out the pie by the parchment paper, put it on a cookie sheet and into the oven. That was an hour ago, I’m going to see how it looks.

  • Muzhik

    It broke. Seriously, the blessed thing popped open like an Alien egg, split down some non-existent seams. I want to cry.

    Right now, my kids are scarfing it down, sans pork jelly (I’m going to have to freeze that stuff.) My daughter the cook tells me that it split because it wasn’t stiff enough; and next time to add some gluten to the dough.

    Since all of my work was guesswork, here are some tidbits for others who may want to give it a whirl:

    The typical 2-crust pie dough recipe will make a tall pie about 6″ across and 5″ tall; adjust your width and height accordingly. It takes about 1.3-1.5 pound of meat (and one boiled egg) to fill this pie. If you’re not going to use a mold (or even if you do) make sure you add some gluten to the pie dough to stiffen it up. Make sure you make the walls as thing as possible: I suspect mine broke because while I THOUGHT I had thin walls, in several places they weren’t, and the difference in swelling during baking was too much for it to take.

    And now that I’ve had a chance to stop sniveling, I’ve hacked off a piece of the stuff, heated some gelatin and poured it over the mess, my impression is “yum, this is good!”

  • I’m sorry for your loss. Honestly, the second time I made that pie I just baked it in bowl-shaped pyrex dish, lined with greaseproof paper and buttered. Same result, so much easier. Use a mold, is the lesson I have learned.

    The important thing, however, is the taste, which you got. The rest is just architecture. Pleasing kids is a high achievement for a cook.