Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Nettles, and things you can do with them

A while ago it was nettle season.

Well, it was supposed to be nettle season. Fact of the matter is, the nettles I was hoping for, never grew.

Instead, I begged a couple of bags of nettles from a friend.

I can already hear you all asking why on earth I would want bags of nettles. And what bags of nettles have to do with preserving.

Firstly - nettles, or stinging nettles, or those annoying horrid weeds that cause your hands to sting a whole lot if you accidentally grab one, are chock full of vitamins and minerals. The sting itself disappears after about 3 minutes of cooking (steaming, boiling whatever!) or after dehydrating. You can then eat nettle leaves like spinach - with a similar flavour - or you can dehydrate the leaves to make a delicate tea from.

Also, the stems of nettle plants can be retted down and turned into a fibre similar to flax, for spinning thread then weaving into cloth.


I wanted nettles, because I wanted to try brewing nettle beer.

Traditionally nettle beer would have been open brewed, much like most brewing was done. I, however, cheated and used my Coopers brew kit.

I rinsed the nettles (bags and bags of them, complete with caterpillars!) and then boiled them up (in three lots - there were many!) on my stove. Then the nettles were strained out the resulting liquid.

It was at this point that I began to have my first misgivings. My kitchen smelt like over-boiled spinach. The nettle-water was green and iron-ish and ... well, not something I could imagine drinking.

But I persevered. So soon we had 23 litres of 19-ish degree nettle water, sitting in a sterile fermenter. I added some bits of orange as per my recipe, threw in a kilo of sugar (standard sugar ratio for a full brew) and then, realising that there was no way to accurately measure the fermentable content of the nettle water and not wanting to under-do it, I added a further 250g of light malt.

Pitched the yeast, aerated it nicely, popped the lid and the airlock on, and left it.

It started bubbling away the next day. It bubbled away for a week. Then it stopped.

That's about what a beer brew normally does. It's not usually any different to that. I didn't bother with measuring specific gravity or any of that nonsense. I just winged it. In fact, I left the mix sitting there for another week before I bottled it out, just to be sure.

Then I bottled it per usual, except I only used half the priming sugar in the bottles, as some directions on the net had indicated that even once fully fermented, the mix can be volatile.

I bottle into glass. I had 3 full crates of glass beer bottles filled with nettle brew.
(It still smelled a bit... funky when I was bottling. I still wasn't sure. But once you've come this far, you don't give up yet)

I kept the crates in my laundry to avoid the ups and downs in temperatures that can happen when they are kept outside.

So a few weeks pass. I had read that one should leave the nettle brew in bottles for longer to age than beer. So I wasn't tempted to touch it.

But one day I came home, and my house smelt bad. Really bad. Incredibly bad. It smelt like someone had vomited something very very bad throughout the house.

A bottle had exploded in my laundry.

There was shattered glass and stinking, loathsome nettle... something??? all through my laundry. It was a disaster.

At this point I still hadn't given up hope. Sometimes a wild yeast can colonise a bottle and create havoc. It may have only been that one bottle.

I was, however, very cautious. Exploding glass bottles at high velocity filled with stinking revolting nausea-inducing muck are pretty scary. So I wrapped my stack of crates in an old couch cover, and left it there, whilst thinking about how to best handle the situation.

Over the next day, another 3 or 4 bottles exploded. My house smelt even worse - which I hadn't thought was possible. It was time to do something.

I do love my husband. I love him a lot. But he doesn't like to listen to me. It was only after he removed the couch cover from the stack of crates, shifted the stack of crates, and was bending over one with the dustpan that he realised perhaps I was right. A bottle exploded in his face, and almost took out his eye. He had cuts on his eyebrow and his hand. And the job was re-assigned to me and me alone, with a whole lot of cursing and swearing.

I determined that the best and potentially only solution was to remove the crates outside, wrap them even more firmly to prevent glass shatter fall-out, and scrub my laundry from top to bottom.

After completing that task, thankfully injury free, I have ignored the mess.

Yep, you heard me. There is a 3-high stack of crates outside my laundry door wrapped in a stinky old couch cover embedded with broken glass and nettle goo. And I'm not touching it, not yet.

The fact is - there may still be one last bottle-bomb waiting patiently to go off the minute I decide it is safe to remove the rest of it's broken brethren. And I'm not willing to lose an eye.

Next nettle season, I'm making teatowels out of them. Seems much more harmless.