Sunday, April 29, 2012

Methane and nettle soup

Nettles: good you you, and free

There has been so much to think about in the past week that I have to admit my head is spinning and it is difficult to organise my thoughts in a constructive way. Taking up most of my contemplative moments has been the news that large areas of the Arctic have begun to bubble with methane gas, quite possibly meaning that it is game over for any attempt at trying to prevent runaway climate change.

Whilst I saw the story a couple of weeks ago, it wasn't really until I read this week's Archdruid Report that the penny really dropped. A bit more probing on the subject reveals something that is almost too scary to contemplate: a fast collapse of the Greenland ice shelf. Far from this being a slow process taking decades there is evidence to suggest that this has happened several times in the past, and in so doing it would raise the world's sea levels by several  metres.

As if that prospect were not terrifying enough, Mr Greer also posits that ice shelves breaking off into the northern Atlantic would likely unleash tsunamis so large that millions of people would be wiped out in an instant. Now, there are few people, if any, in whom I would put more trust in their penetrative analysis of various topics than Mr Greer - and it is somewhat ironic that he is an 'End of the World of the Week' with every post poking fun at former doom-sayers who have been proven wrong. So when he states calmly: 

'All that’s certain at this point is that something potentially very troubling is happening in Arctic waters, and the possibility that it might have destructive consequences on a local, regional, or continental scale can’t be ruled out. Panic is the least useful response I can think of, so I’ll say this very quietly: if the news from Arctic waters in the months and years to come suggests that things are moving in the wrong direction, and those of my readers who live close to the shores of the northern Atlantic basin happen to have the opportunity to move inland or to higher ground, it might not be unreasonable to do so.'

then, as someone typing this blog next to shoreline not too far from Greenland and only a metre or so above sea level, I sit up and take notice.


Staying with John Michael Greer, I have (finally, after numerous delays) taken delivery of his latest book 'Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth'. and am much engrossed in it at present. The book is an attempt to draw on the so-called mystery teachings that have run through human cultures for aeons as a means of addressing our twin environmental and spiritual crises - and this person who was raised as a scientific-materialist atheist is highly absorbed by it.

I'll do a full writeup on it later in the week but for now, in the spirit of using the resources around us which are provided by nature, I'll post my nettle soup recipe, which I wrote a while back when I was doing a series of articles on sustainable food. Apologies if you live in the southern hemisphere or somewhere tropical, but right now there are some lovely nettles springing around where I live. Please note that it was written for a Scandinavia based audience, but I have tried to translate or explain the bits that might prove mystifying. Hope you enjoy it.


Nettle Soup

Scandinavia, like practically everywhere else, has a rich heritage when it comes to food. However, certainly in Denmark, much of that heritage has been lost over the last century in the rush to produce factory farmed and standardised food.

Søren Kirkegaard, on the first page of his great work on existentialism Either/Or, wrote “I would rather be a swineherd out on Amager and be understood by the swine than be a poet and be misunderstood by the people.”

From that statement we can tell that a) Søren was struggling to find a publisher who would respect his artistic integrity and b) there were a lot of pigs in Denmark even in the 1840s.

But even the great philosopher could not have foreseen that a hundred and fifty years later there would be five pigs for every human in Denmark, and that much of the culinary variety had been swept away on a tsunami of hot dogs, meatballs, sliced ham, bacon, pate and anything else you can turn a pig into with a bit of machinery.

I’m writing this recipe from my kitchen, in a block of flats on Amager (an island that makes up part of Copenhagen - much of it is reclaimed from the sea), which was no doubt built on a piece of land used by the swineherds Søren considered joining the ranks of if nobody read his book. Nowadays one hears so much about Nordic food and its supposed health-giving properties. However, if one discounts rye bread, one does not actually see the average person eating the kind of thing served up at the ‘world’s best restaurant’. Why is that?

Incidentally a friend of mine went there and was served up with some soil in a glass, which he ate and proclaimed ‘not bad’. I won’t be ‘dishing up the dirt’ or recommending that you eat living Greenlandic prawns from cocktail glasses but will instead stick to what most of us regard as actual food that you would like to eat.

All the things you will see here are seasonal, and cheap (or even free), so it’s best not to hang around too long if you want to try them yourselves. Also, wherever possible, the ingredients will be locally available AND actually available in Danish shops. So, without further ado, let’s get onto my first recipe.

Nettles grow in abundance in Denmark and are actually very good for you if you cook them. Think of them as free spinach. I admit I was sceptical at first but after I tried this recipe I was converted. I tried it out on the rest of the family too and the conclusion was that it tasted very much like watercress soup, but a little tangier.

First of all you’ll need a bag and at least one rubber glove. Go out and pick some nettles from somewhere relatively unpolluted i.e. not next to a busy road. Just pick the top few leaves, say four, leaving any that are in flower. The tips of young nettles are the most tender and contain the most nutrients.

Here’s what you need for the soup:

250g nettles

1 medium onion

1.5 litres vegetable stock (from a cube is fine)

1 tbsp. rape seed oil (aka canola)

½ tsp. sea salt

2 pieces of rye bread for croutons

Take a large heavy saucepan, get it really hot and sauté the chopped onion in the oil for 2-3 minutes without allowing it to burn. If you only have thin pans, just make sure you stir the onion a bit more vigorously so it doesn’t stick.

Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. You can add a pinch of nutmeg for extra taste at this stage, but I don’t think it needs it. When it is boiling add the nettles and stir them in. Leave to simmer for 20 minutes. This gets rid of any stinging properties and breaks down the cell walls within the plant.

In the meantime make the croutons. Some recipe books go to great lengths to do this with an oven but there is a very simple way to do it. Take the rye bread and put it in the toaster. When it pops up, put it in again – the thick bread needs a heavy toasting. Allow it to cool for a couple of minutes in the toaster before chopping it into little squares with a sharp knife. Simple. If you don’t have a toaster (come on, who doesn’t have a toaster?) just chop the rye bread up and ‘stir fry’ it in a dry frying pan until all the moisture has left the bread.

Now you’re ready to process it into soup. To do this use a hand blender (stick blender, say the Americans), or if you don’t have one of them, a normal blender (much messier).

Season the soup with the salt and, if you like, a bit of pepper, and serve in pre-heated bowls. Add the croutons. For an extra flourish swirl a little piskefløde (whipping cream) into the centre.

It’s optional to pretend that you’ve been stung after taking the first sip.

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