During the transition between the end of winter and the middle of spring is a period which traditionally was known as the “hungry gap”. This marked the grim phase of the growing calendar when the last of the hardy winter crops had been used up and the new season’s first crops were not yet ready to harvest.
In times gone by the poor had to rely on whatever food they had managed to store, alongside foraged food from the land.
In recent years, foraging has undergone a revival, and the process of searching for food to forage can be almost as much fun as actually finding it and cooking with it. Some foraged foods – wild mushrooms, for example – are a challenge both to find and to identify, and foraging for them requires expert advice and guidance. Others are a little easier to the novice forager like myself.
One that certainly will be familiar to everyone is the ubiquitous stinging nettle, a nutritious plant, with lots of magnesium, iron and calcium as well as a high vitamin A and C content. It adds a pleasant, earthy, slightly peppery flavour to cooking, as this recipe shows.
Now is the perfect time of year for picking nettles; in the UK they are at their best between mid March and mid April, when the plants are young and before the leaves become tough and fibrous. Pick only the tender leaves near the top of the plant (using gloves of course!), and pick from nettle plants that are away from roadsides and other areas where they may be exposed to pollution.
The nettle’s sting is swiftly neutralised by the heat of the oven. The egg is an optional addition, but I think it perfectly complements the earthy flavour of the nettles.
I like to fry my pizza base in olive oil before baking – it is the traditional way to make pizza fritta and it ensures the base has a deliciously crisp crunch.
wild nettle pizza
for the pizza base
250 g organic plain flour
150 ml lukewarm water
50 ml extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp dried yeast
1 tsp sea salt
4 tbsp olive oil, for frying
for the topping
100 g freshly picked young nettle leaves, washed and drained (use gloves when handling!)
1 red onion, very thinly sliced
4 tbsp organic passatta
2 buffalo mozzarella, grated
80 g vegetarian Parmesan, finely grated
24 black olives, preferably stone in
4 free range organic eggs
1. First make the dough. Place the dried yeast in the lukewarm water and stir. Leave for 5 minutes. Put the flour in a mixing bowl and add the salt. Pour in the olive oil and the yeast mixture. Mix into a ball of dough and knead for 10 minutes until it has become smooth and pliable. Lightly rub with olive oil and put in a bowl. Leave to prove for an hour, with a clean tea cloth or some cling film over the bowl.
2. Pre heat the oven to 230 °C (450°F, gas mark 8).
3. Punch down the pizza dough and divide into four equal portions. Roll each piece out into a thin circle. Pour the 4 tbsp olive oil into a frying pan large enough to accommodate a single pizza base. Place the pan over a medium heat and when hot add the first pizza base. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the base is hard and slightly coloured then turn over and cook the other side similarly. Place on a baking tray and repeat this process for the remaining three pizza bases, adding extra olive oil to the pan if necessary.
4. Thinly spread a tablespoon of passatta across each pizza base. Scatter the grated mozzarella evenly over the bases, followed by half of the Parmesan. Next, scatter the red onions followed by the olives. Now (wearing gloves) scatter the nettle leaves evenly over the pizza bases. Crack an egg onto the centre of each pizza, sprinkle the remaining Parmesan over the egg and the rest of the pizza and gently place in the pre-heated oven for 5-10 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the egg is cooked. Serve immediately.