The first time I had nettles, I cannot say wether I was more smitten by the fact that I was eating one of the weeds that I least imagined to be edible, or by how good they actually tasted.
We had been wandering around Gradara, walking along the castle walls, in search of a spot to have dinner, one night we decided to venture out without a reservation. We stopped at a dimly candlelit place with wooden ceilings and ancient terracotta tiles, not much different than all other restaurants in the premises. Its mighty white stone arched door welcomed us with a sign bearing a name too fascinating to ignore, ‘Il Bacio’ (the kiss). In its rustic menu, In between the piccione arrosto, gnocchi di zucca with sage and pecorino fondue and formaggi di fossa, that peculiar nettle and cannellini soup stood out, glimmering like a jewel in our minds.
I was very young a the time, and that flavor stuck with me like not many others ever did. I just remember that I loved it.
Fast forward to several years later, we were wandering through the heart of a sunken green valley nestled in the heart of the Sibillini mountains where a bosom-like hill rises, on which top sits the town of Castelluccio di Norcia.
Again, we wandered its narrow streets until we eyed a quaint spot, its outer stone wall lined with wooden shelving displaying all sorts of local legumes, and a menu that was to die for: in what was a chilly evening after a long day of walking through hills and fields we could not resist the calling of baked lentils with truffles, greens braised in garlicky olive oil, bruschetta and, again, that flavor I tasted years before and never encountered again: farrotto all’ortica (nettle farrotto).
‘Let’s go in,’ I commanded.
And oh, was it a great decision.
As we stood in awe before our meal, the owner of the restaurant came to our table to greet us.
“The nettles, and the wild herbs, we all forage them by hand here, in the slope of the hill. There is no traffic here, no cars, and no smog. There is nothing but us and the hills, and nature offering us some of the most delicious wild herbs you will ever find. You will not have greens like these anywhere else in the country: they are the best you will ever have.”
He was right. Up to date, I could not find any other that could prove him wrong.
That meal triggered all the fond memories I had of that soup in Gradara, which I never saw on a menu again.
Nettles grow along countryside paths, in ditches and shady areas, in any place that is at least partly sheltered from the sun and where it can collect the fresh dew of spring and early fall mornings. Its edible companions are mallow, borage, poppy leaves, and mustard greens, which we all forage in spring and early fall.
These wild herbs are disguised Cinderellas of the fields that turn into royalty in the kitchen, with nettles being the queen.
‘Urtica dioica’, the name of nettles – which I believe to be just as elegant as its flavor and looks, comes from the latin ‘urere’: to burn. And burning referred not only to its feeling on the skin but also on the soul, as ‘dioica’ meant ‘dual’, which not only explained the fact that nettle flowerings can be either female or male, but alluded to coupling in general, as those very seeds were known as a potent aphrodisiac.
In any dish, nettles are a beautiful lady in simple clothing, a lady that charms you with elegant gestures and composure rather than womanly frills. And though there are many ingredients nettles can make love to, there are not many she will accept, as its delicate taste can silently yet assertively turn down other flavors, like a woman who knows what men she wants to turn down. Garlic is too powerful – better a milder flavor like garlic scapes or, if using garlic, ver little of it is enough. A touch of Parmigiano, if in moderate measure, could be allowed to court her, but no other potent cheese should be allowed to dumb down its slightly minty, mildly chlorophyll-y flavor, which is reminiscent of spinach, but with a sweet edge.
I strongly believe that nettles need wine as part of their dress-up and added nobility. What is best than wine, the simplest of treats yet most sophisticated of flavors, to charm a lady?
Nettles have strong detoxing, diuretic and gut-cleansing properties. Maybe this is one of the reasons why this herb has always been regarded as almost magical: its burning became an ancient symbol of thorough cleansing, as if it were spiritual fire.
I find comfort in this ancient wisdom, where symbols explain life. Elderly women today still say that the burn from nettles is not to be feared, for its burning is the perfect metaphor of life: if swiftly and readily embraced in favor of a greater good rather than avoided at all costs, can cleanse rather than scar, and extinguish all that ails and all that sickens.
So, just as the nature of this herb, nettle dishes tend to be simple, fuss free, healthy, yet extremely elegant.
This pasta is incredibly quick to make, it can be easily made vegan if you forgo the cheese (though a sprinkling of really good pecorino really hits the spot here) and can be made gluten-free if you choose gluten-free pasta and use brown rice flour instead of whole wheat flour for the sauce.
If you cannot find nettles, substitute raw baby spinach or preferably a mix of raw dark leafy greens.
I decided to make my own pasta with the lovely flours from Molino Ariani, but feel free to use your favorite pasta. I made ‘chitarrine’, which is like tagliolini, but thicker. The name ‘chitarrine’ means ‘little guitars’, as this pasta is supposed to be reminiscent of guitar strings, and it is a pasta cut typical of le Marche region.
If you want to make your own pasta, follow the instructions on this post.
If you want to go full Italian, but want vegan pasta and/or do not feel like making your own,here are some of my favorites off of Amazon:
Buckwheat pasta options off Amazon
La Pasta di Aldo – Filini
Mancini – Spaghetti alla Chitarra
Garofalo – Whole wheat spaghetti
Or (I am going to say something that would sound like profanity to the average Italian, but works): just use organic soba noodles.
I prefer to briefly sauté the nettles to make them softer and give the shallot a caramelized flavor, which is exalted by deglazing with the wine. I think the extra effort is absolutely worth it for added depth of flavor, but if you’re feeling lazy and/or want to forgo the wine, just add all the ingredients except the wine to a food processor and you will be fine.
Once made, the pesto goes really well with any pasta, but I love how the slightly smoky buckwheat flavor complements the sweetness of the olive oil and hint of minty chlorophyll flavor of the nettles and keeps well in the fridge for well over a week.
If you are not making your own pasta, this recipe comes together in the time it takes to boil the pasta water and is healthy, provided you use good ingredients.
NB: Always handle nettles with GLOVES! Once thoroughly rinsed or cooked, nettles become harmless.
- 130 g (4.5 oz) semolina flour
- 70 g (2.5 oz) buckwheat flour
- 2 eggs
- 2 small shallots, sliced
- 1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
- 50 g young, picked and rinsed nettle leaves
- ¼ cup white wine
- ¼ packed cup basil leaves
- 4-5 sprigs parsley
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts
- ½ garlic clove, peeled
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- olio evo
- A handful pine nuts
- Grated Grana or Parmigiano
- Follow the instructions on the post linked above if making your own tagliolini. If you feel like living dangerously, use a ratio of 100g (3.5 oz) semolina + 100g buckwheat flour for a stronger buckwheat flavor.
- Add the olive oil (or butter) and shallots to a pan and sauté on a low flame for 5 minutes, until the shallots turn gold. Add the chopped nettles, sauté for a minute, then deglaze with the wine. Bring the flame to medium, boil off the wine.
- Transfer to a food processor, and add the basil, parsley, pine nuts, garlic, and salt. Process until you obtain a paste. Slowly pour the extra virgin olive oil in a streamline while processing, until the pesto turns smooth. Transfer to a jar. This pesto is great with any pasta, in panini, or as a pizza topper.
- bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add a scant tablespoon coarse salt and boil the pasta for the time indicated in the package. When draining, reserve some pasta water.
- Toss the pasta in the pot with the pesto, adding a couple tablespoons pasta water if you want it looser or do not want to use all the pesto. Just eyeball the quantity and add as much pesto as you like.
- Serve with the pine nuts, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and grated cheese to taste (or leave it out for a vegan version, if using vegan pasta).
NOTE: Castelluccio and the Sibillini mountains are two of the areas affected by the huge earthquake that hit central Italy on August 24th. With hundreds of deaths, hundreds of wounded and thousands still homeless, this earthquake was a true calamity. All the houses need to be rebuilt and there is still help needed.
To donate, visit the official ‘Un Aiuto Subito’ website to make a donation (scroll to the bottom to donate) or visit the Italian Red Cross website.
NOTE #2: apparently I won the Saveur awards! Thanks for all your precious support, Hortus would be nothing and I would not have grown as a person and as a professional the way I did if it weren’t for every single one of you. I will forever be grateful to all of this great blogging world and all the people who walk in it.
Congrats to all the other finalists, winners and participants!
And thanks to Paolo for taking my picture (and several others!) and for lending me his 135mm and his company!