Freshly picked stinging nettles

Nettles, although often thought of as just an annoying weed, can be blanched and used in salads, made into a tasty soup or used to make cloth. But they are still annoying.

Foraging for nettles

Nettles on a market in Stockholm
Time-poor Swedes can sometimes buy nettles at food markets

Swedes are keen foragers largely because of their allemansrätten (the right to roam and pick) and as a legacy from the time when many Swedes were very poor and had to make the most of freely available food.

As nettles seem to grow everywhere they are one of the easiest foods for foragers to pick provided you wear some gloves! Nettles probably became particularly popular to pick in Sweden because they emerge so quickly after the winter snow melts and Swedes are always cheered by the prospect of warmer weather and longer days.

Choosing good nettles

Nettles growing in a wooded area in southern England

Nettles appear from mid February in northern Europe and are best picked when the shoots are quite small, ideally with just 4-6 leaves. Avoid nettles that are:

• badly eaten;
• in flower, because they will be too old and fibrous;
• over 30 cm (12") high.

Although nettles are traditionally picked in the spring, if they are cut down you can enjoy a second crop.

Health benefits

Nettles have high quantities of iron, calcium, vitamin A and K. In medieval Europe they were used medicinally as a diuretic and to treat joint pain.

Culinary uses

Nettle soup with hard boiled eggs and creme fraiche

The most famous culinary use for nettles in Sweden is to make nässelsoppa (nettle soup), which is traditionally served in Sweden with hard boiled eggs and creme fraîché.

Once nettles have been blanched briefly, to wash away the poison that irritates the skin, they can be used in place of spinach in most recipes. For instance, they can be: 

• used in salads,
• creamed, like kale,
• added to omelettes,
• added with herbs such as parsley, dill and tarragon to a waffle mixture to make savoury waffles to serve with smoked fish.

John Duxbury 

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