Few wild plants evoke such strong, negative emotions as nettles. Everyone who has ever been stung by them (and who hasn’t?) knows to steer clear of those hairy leaves. With my own childhood burns almost as vivid in my memory as the teary faces of my girls after having walked straight into them, I used to detest the damn things. But did you know that once you get past their defence mechanism, nettle leaves are actually versatile, tasty greens packed with nutrients? When dried and combined with mint, they make a delicious base for tea. Once blanched to remove their sting, they can be turned into pesto or soup, or used to flavour gnocchi or spring risotto. These days, as soon as fresh nettle plants start to reappear in abundance after the winter, I arm said girls with gloves and scissors and take them out for a foraging trip. The result of our latest haul are these aromatic nettle bread rolls, packed with the fresh flavours of spring.
In early spring, when nettles just start growing, you can use the whole plant in your cooking. When the plants get bigger and sturdier, the tender young tops are the most flavourful and nutritious parts. As by then there’s usually an abundance of plants to choose from, you can be picky and just snip off the top 4-6 leaves of every plant.
Blanched nettles have a subtle flavour resembling that of spinach and kelp. In these nettle bread rolls I pair them with lemon zest and the soft sweet flavour of fresh tarragon, a combination which will fill your house with the most wonderful fragrance as the dough is rising. As a base for the dough I use a mixture of rye flour, oat flour and wholegrain spelt flour. I love the flavour each of these grains gives to the bread, but if you prefer, you can of course substitute this mixture with wholegrain wheat flour or ground grains of your choice.
I decorated the rolls with another omni-present weed, ground elder or goutweed, picked in this case from the back of my garden. Like nettles, ground elder leaves are both cursed with bad rep as a gardener’s plague and perfectly suited for use in the kitchen to make pesto, salads or soups. Here I only use them for their pretty looks: if you stick them onto the dough with a little water, they’ll dry on the surface of the rolls during baking, leaving a beautiful decoration. You can do the same thing with some reserved nettle leaves, or simply sprinkle the surface of the rolls with some sea salt crystals.
Like every yeasted dough treat, these nettle bread rolls are best when served straight from the oven. Enjoy them as they are, or topped with homemade cream cheese with wild garlic and mint, as a celebration of all the wonderful flavours spring has to offer us right now, just ready to be picked.
Nettle bread rolls with lemon and tarragon – makes 10
- 20 nettle tops with 4-6 leaves each, rinsed in cold water (use gloves to protect your hands!)
- 8 g dried instant yeast
- 280 ml tepid water
- splash of agave syrup
- 150 g rye flour
- 150 g oat flour
- 200 g wholegrain spelt flour
- 1½ tsp. salt
- zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- small bunch (15 g ) tarragon, chopped
- ground elder leaves or reserved blanched nettle leaves, to decorate (optional)
- course sea salt, to decorate (optional)
Bring a pan of water to a boil. Over the pan, snip the nettle leaves off their stems. Use gloves to protect your hands, because the nettles still have a nasty sting! Let the leaves simmer for 2 minutes, then gently lift them from the pan. Now they won’t sting anymore. Pat the leaves dry with kitchen paper or a tea towel. If you like, reserve 10 pretty leaves for decoration; finely chop the rest.Set aside for later use.
Mix the yeast with the water and the agave syrup. Place the mixture in a warm spot for about 10 minutes until it becomes frothy.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the different flours with the salt and grated lemon zest. Stir in the olive oil and the yeast mixture, then knead to create a smooth dough. Now fold in the chopped tarragon and nettle and knead until the herbs are evenly distributed. If the dough becomes too wet after the addition of the nettle leaves, add a little extra spelt flour. You want the dough to turn out moist, but not sticky.
Lightly brush the inside of the mixing bowl with oil, then return the dough. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and leave the dough to rise in a warm spot for about an hour, until doubled in volume.
Knock back the dough and knead well for a minute. Divide the dough into 10 equal portions and shape these into smooth round buns. Transfer them to a lined baking sheet, leaving enough room between them to expand. Cover loosely with foil and leave to prove for another 20 minutes.
Heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4.
Brush the rolls with a little water. Top each roll with a ground elder leaf or a reserved nettle leaf and sprinkle with a little sea salt, if using.
Bake the rolls for 12-15 minutes until golden and ready. Enjoy them straight from the oven, as they are, or topped with homemade herbed cream cheese.