Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Green Beltane soup

Although the weather here in the Pennines is still a bit stuck in winter, the year moves on all the same and now here we are at Beltane! As I've looked out at bare trees and grey skies these past couple of weeks, it's been hard to really drop into spring. Those hope-filled warm days, that make me feel like running about the countryside barefoot, have been hard to come by. It's difficult to imagine that our ancestors would have cavorted about the countryside around this time, making merry in the fields and hedgerows. 

Beltane was the great fire festival of growth and fertility, the most potent and active time of the year. In warmer springs it's easy to feel the strong green push of the earth - as the ground becomes carpeted with tiny opportunistic wild seedlings and the tight fat buds of the trees burst at the seams. But in this cold grey half-season it's harder to sense the throb of a land on the cusp of summer.  

And so, I offer you, nettle soup...

It's a simple affair, but full of the rich green goodness that we are so in need of just now. I've only been aware of the food potential of stinging nettles for a year or so, I'm still exploring its many possibilities but it seems to me that soup is a good simple way to enjoy them. And as long as you're using only the freshest tenderest growth, delicious too.

So...take some scissors and a pair of gloves and chop off the young growth at the tops of the plant. For a decent amount you need about half a sink full of nettle tops. Then wash them really well as they are beloved of many wee beasties. Whilst they're having a bath, chop up a big onion or a few small ones with some garlic, and peel and chop a handful of potatoes. Then melt a hefty chunk of butter in a very big pot and fry the onion and garlic.

When the onions are soft, add the potatoes and a couple of pints of good stock. Cook until the potatoes are almost done then add the nettles and cook for a further five to ten minutes. Blend. You could add some cream or creme fraiche at this point but it will somewhat dilute the deep grassy hues of the finished soup.

And that's it. The simplest way to eat your weeds. Obviously this verdant broth is bursting with all kinds of greenly goodness as nettles contain iron, calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin K and chlorophyll . Nettle has a long and full history as a medicine plant with herbalists prescribing it for all kinds of bodily complaints from kidney problems to asthma. It puts a spring in your step and a twinkle in your eye, so I'm told, making it the perfect Beltane tonic. Maybe it will finally enable us to to launch fully into this season of growth and light. Let the frolicking commence!

(With thanks to Sam Lowi and Jesper Launder for the nettle wisdom and my ever-growing wild food cupboard)

Sunday, 21 April 2013

A Sky Above

As most parents of small children can testify, time together without children is a rare thing at this moment in our lives. For us most evenings we're too tired to go much beyond the most basic communication and weekends are a series of desperate negotiations to try and ensure everyone gets a little of what they need, which for the adults of the house mostly means some quiet time alone. Sometimes it's hard to know whether you still even enjoy each other's company. It takes planning, thought and willing grandparents to really get some time together, all of which we luckily managed to achieve whilst staying in Wales recently.

Generally I find that when in Wales, it's good to walk up big hills when presented with the opportunity, so having gratefully arranged for a whole day of childcare we seized upon the rare chance for an adult-paced stomp. We opted for a straightforward seven-miler which the walking guide reassured us was nothing that a reasonably fit seventy year old couldn't manage. Our intention was to find one of Wales' oldest churches, Llangelynnin, which looked suitably remote and romantic as well as boasting a sacred well in the grounds. We'd also read that the lands about it were home to some prehistoric standing stones and burial chambers and being a bit nerdy about that sort of thing - we set off.

Although down on the valley floor the snow of recent weeks had melted and vanished, up high it still lay deep enough to cause me some concern - it was wet and colder than I'd realised. These days my old walking boots are leaky and stiff and I'd forgotten my hat. As we set out a group of walkers with sensibly thorough attire passed us, giving me a few moments in which to worry about my own lack of preparedness and envisage a shamefaced call to Mountain Rescue. I was reminded briefly of a cringe-worthy moment of my girlhood, when on a school trip to climb Moel Famau wearing only a pink jumpsuit and canvas pumps, I'd had to be carried back down the hill  in the early stages of hypothermia by an irate teacher. During the half hour I spent thawing out under a toilet hand-dryer, I vowed not to repeat this harsh lesson in the importance of appropriate clothing, and yet here i was some years later risking humiliation again.

Before children, this was the sort of expedition we undertook often - map in hand, flask in bag, we'd walk the wilds together. There were many days spent trudging moorland, grassland and coastline, many nights spent huddled in our little mountain tent, listening to rains, gales and the eerie calls of unseen beasts. We camped near a lonely beach in Mull one September, where the rocks were pink and the sea a perfect clear turquoise. We watched giant crabs crawling under our floating bodies, swam to sun-baked rocky islands  and wobbled home to our tent in thick treacly darkness with golden whisky in our veins.

At Kilmartin Glen we pitched our tent on the village green at the end of a formidable valley where the wind and rain were funnelled to a fine point ending precisely at the door to our tent. Through the worst weather Scotland had to offer we faithfully trudged from stone circle to burial chamber to cup and ring marked rock. The land there is littered with ancient monuments, giving a sense of being in a place that belongs to another race, ancient and unfathomable. There, as we traced the maddening marks of the cup and ring carvings we felt the deep booming fusion of person, place and time.

New and tender love seems to need exposure to the elements to help it grow - storms to strengthen and sun filled skies to make those early days glow in the memory. Many of us seem to know instinctively that there is something about journeying in the unknown, preferably in wildish conditions that helps bind two souls together. Perhaps, when it's just us and the land, it's easier to see each other. I know of many couples who spent a good part of their early relationships walking, travelling and wild camping, making memories to see them through the tougher times ahead.

I thought on these things as I slipped and stumbled my way through the Welsh hills, my knees twinging and ankles growing ever more wobbly. We had our moments of dischord - our usual grumbles standing over the map  showing that our ongoing mistrust of each other's sense of direction is still strong; I sought the comfort of the trail of footprints in the snow and was accused of losing my nerve. But mostly we relished the freedom - the simple joy of striding out. Along the way we got childishly excited at the sight of wild mountain ponies, marvelled at the huge white shining hills about us, were quiet and awed by the time-worn wood of the rafters of the ancient church and sighed in pleasure like grandparents at the sniff of flask coffee. And we discovered, reassuringly, that not a whole lot has changed in the six years since we last journeyed out together - sky above, a photogenic burial mound and the prospect of a decent pint of ale still makes us happy.

And there was something else, something revealed in the slight loss of springiness of limb and the teary tiredness that dropped about me towards the end of our walk. A little reminder of a girlhood gone; a reminder of children, responsibilities and of middle-age approaching. A reminder also that we've grown up together from  feckless twenty-somethings to slightly-less-feckless approaching-forties, that our adventures may be different but are no less exciting now that we have two small people to shared them with. And a hope that maybe one day I'll even grow up enough to be properly attired for climbing mountains.