When the Galien River flows through the small town of New Troy, Michigan, in Berrien County, it passes under a bridge. Alongside that concrete bridge and that muddy river is Mill Road Park (named for the adjacent, decrepit mill that barely stands) with a few short trails that wind along the river’s swamps and bluffs. It was in that park — on a lazy, Sunday afternoon in May, after having visited our grandparents up in town — that I first became exposed to fireweed.
One of the trails in Mill Road Park heads upstream from the bridge, and up to the crumbling remnants of the dam that powered the mill for which this park was named. There’s a certain fascination I hold for that which represents a bygone era of different people, lifestyles and technology, and it’s likely it was this fascination — though still in its infancy and not recognized — that seduced me to venture off the trail and up into the brush towards the decayed dam.
“Watch out, Evan,” my dad said, “there’s fireweed up there.”
I believe this was meant as a warning, but it had the opposite effect — I was only further inspired to forge onward towards what sounded like a rather exotic combination of pyrotechnics and botany. When I walked into the midst of fireweed’s stinging fringes, my shins erupted in small, red itchy welts that were both infuriatingly itchy and excruciatingly painful. If you can imagine a few dozen mosquitoes dipping their proboscises in a mixture of salt and vinegar before dining on your flesh, then you have a good idea of what your skin might feel like when coming in contact with fireweed.
Fireweed, or stinging nettle, as it is more commonly called, is not related to a certain member of the cannabis family. Rather, it is a fairly ubiquitous member of the Urticaceae family that grows in almost all manner of ditches, fence rows and yard fringes. After repeated offenses, I learned how to recognize the plant’s shape: variegated, heart-shaped leaves, growing opposite sides of stems that can reach shoulder height, the hole of the plant covered in the fuzz of hollow, histamine-laden hairs.
Given my understanding of stinging nettle as a plant to be avoided, it came as a surprise when my dad — having stumbled upon an article or perhaps recalling a piece of information from the recesses of his mind — began boiling the stinging nettle that grew in the back of our chicken yard for a tea-like tincture he drank as a tonic to restore the body’s minerals after a winter devoid of verdancy.
I was shocked: wasn’t this plant no more significant than the ragweed or invasive garlic mustard we so often rage war against? As it turns out, stinging nettle has a long history of being regarded as one of the first greens available after the snow melts. Stinging nettle’s early emergence onto the scene each spring made it vital to Native Americans’ diets when not much else in the way of green things could be found. Being rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium, and a good bit of protein, too (#swolenation). It hardly comes as a surprise that science has found the motivation to condense nettles into 500 milligram pills that can be taken without the hazard of developing a rash. I could appreciate the use of nettles for health purposes, but I hadn’t discovered that nettles could truly be a thing of culinary lust until I tried them pestoed by my good friend, Faustine.
My first, innocent taste of Faustine’s nettle pistou occurred when I was visiting her and her friends and family in Normandy, France, during my study abroad experience of last fall. I first met Faustine and her husband, Victor, when they were kind enough to let my inexperienced hands participate in their annual apple harvest and cider pressing. Later that same week, I spent some more time with them at a bonfire-potluck, where Faustine’s contribution to the pickings at the potluck was a few humble, bubble-esque mason jars, filled with a deep, pond-scum green that looked like it might possess something radioactive in its ingredient list.
I watched with some skepticism as the surrounding group of French farmers sliced up a crusty baguette and slathered on thick mounds of Normande butter, and then a hefty dollop of the green mixture. The joy was evident upon their faces as they bit into the small toasts, the faint crackle of the bread giving way to silence; the silence that is felt and heard when a group of people eats something really darn good that makes everybody pause and not talk for a second, just taste and let their mouths rest. The silence that happens when people use their tongues for a purpose different than talking, when people let their tongues soliloquize to them the flavors put there, the flavors born and grown up and out of the earth and transformed by human hands into that unique and individual character now pervading their mouths.
I sliced myself a piece of the baguette and followed my French hosts’ lead in dressing it. As I bit into the nettle pistou-laden toast, my tastebuds noticed that it lacked the refined and cultivated olfactory excellence of the Italians’ basil pesto, that immersive experience that drowns me in its pungent aromas. But I found that in the absence of such crafted and forged scents and flavors –for basil is and has been hybridized and bred 6 ways to Sunday–the wild heritage of the stinging nettles in the pesto was able to come through.
The wild nature of nettle pesto is not given away easily. The wildness comes through as an aftertaste, the nettle pesto revealing its uncultivated nature by way of a slightly bitter brand of rebellious chloroplasts. Though it grows so near to the regimented rows of cultivated crops, so near to that which has been selected for a specific purpose, it defies categorization as part of man’s domestic world. Spreading by rhizomes that travel underground, the stinging nettle spreads its progeny through the ditches and hedgerows that it favors, and sometimes wriggles its way into that cultivated field where the wild intermingles with the tame.
Bright and lively with an aftertaste of spinach and childhood innocence, Faustine’s nettle pistou tastes like I imagined the fireweed of my youth appearing along that bridge in Mill Road Park: fecund and wild with a taste of the forbidden, burgeoning with the possibility of a thing being more than it seems, of a plant being composed of more than just the stinging nature of its photosynthesizing limbs, and of a pistou tasting more than just its constituent parts of fats and proteins, greens and spices.
Below is Faustine’s recipe for Stinging Nettle Pistou, in her words. My only recommendation is this: wear gloves.
Faustine’s Pesto d’orties:
To Harvest the nettles: Gather the head of the nettle — the first three leaves. Feel for the leaves that are the youngest, greenest and take these ones. Inspect them: look the leaves over for insects and bird droppings. Do not wash them because they are like mushrooms: if you have washed them you have lost the texture that you want.
1 kilogram of stinging nettles, as harvested to the specifications above
500 grams of olive oil
200 grams of sunflower seeds
30 grams apple cider vinegar
~15 grams salt
Lemon Juice (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
Put all of this together in a cutter robot and you’re good!
Featured image by Evan Rieth.