Year of Grace, Day 138. On spring and bitter herbs, and Goethe and bitter melon too

While weeding the other day (the warmth and sun have stirred the stinging nettles and goutweed into sudden growth), I pondered on the Passover injunction to partake of bitter herbs and I recalled reading of an age-old Greek custom of eating the first greens as a spring tonic. I had gathered a bowlful of the tenderest tops of the stinging nettles, my fingers suitably protected by thick leather gardening gloves. (It is unwise to grasp the nettle with bare hands, as No. 2 son found to his dismay, having believed M who had once said nettles didn’t sting provided one grasped them firmly.) I had hoped to try them out in a recipe from a country life cookbook, but in the end I didn’t.

As with snails that I once relished as escargots, the minute I started gardening and they became a nuisance and thus an “enemy,” I could no longer stomach the thought of ingesting them. Rather perverse of me, because there is no greater revenge among certain peoples than to eat one’s enemy (but that is all in the historic past, hopefully). Instead, the stinging nettle tops are going into an invigorating tea for other, legitimate plants: that is, steeped in water until their absorbed nitrogen and other nutrients are dissolved to become a rich and highly odoriferous cordial. I don’t do a thorough job of weeding and always leave a patch of them somewhere in the back garden, as certain butterflies prefer them to lay eggs on, their caterpillars being partial to the flavour of stinging nettle leaves.

Stinging nettle, some of which have a lovely purple tint

Stinging nettle, some of which have a lovely purple tint

Before glasshouses and polytunnels and heating made winter cultivation possible, what we now call weeds and other naturally growing, uncultivated greens — still tender at this time of year — constituted the first vegetables, so very welcome after a boring diet of pickled and dried ones over the long winter months. It is in the Mediterranean regions that the gathering of the first herbs and wild greens of spring has been recorded as a tradition (though green vegetables of all kinds are highly appreciated and much relished in Asia and Africa too). After months of drought, the greening of the earth from the winter rains calls for joyous celebration. For decades the practice has languished in certain parts of Greece, but thankfully it has been revived, with a younger generation’s renewed interest in neglected traditional foods, as well as in foods that are also good for health, otherwise known as functional foods. (For a Turkish celebration of spring greens, click here for Olga Irez’s account.) This interest also comes rather poignantly when the older generation and their knowledge of these wild plants and their uses have gone and many of these once plentiful plants have become rare. As with mushroom foraging, one really needs to collect these wild greens with a knowledgeable grandmother or grandfather, learning directly which ones are edible and which are toxic.

In Greece, these greens are called horta and include wild relatives of the cabbage (mustards, cress, and rucola), dandelion, amaranth (vlita), chicory (stamnagathi), radicchio (radikia), and sow thistle (achohi). The greens must be gathered before flowering, when their flavour is at its peak. As well, they must not have been growing in areas that have been sprayed with agrochemicals or close to passing traffic.) And if meant to be dried, they must be picked after the dew on them has evaporated, otherwise they go mouldy. Each region has its particular favourites for this mixture, and they are usually seven. The herbs collected are a balanced mixture of sweet, aromatic, and bitter. But as to why seven, no one knows.

Seven seems to be a time-honoured quantity for certain rituals or their components, such as the Japanese seven-herb congee (nanakusa kayu), traditionally eaten for New Year. When the lunar calendar was still followed in Japn, this would have coincided with Chinese New Year, sometime in February or March, when the new season’s growth would have begun, and seri and penpengusa and the rest would have been to hand. None of these would have been on the ground in January.

Seven, btw, is also the EU-regulated number for the bundled posy of herbs designated for Frankfurter Green Sauce (known in its home territory as Frankfotter Grie Soss), a traditional accompaniment to hard-boiled eggs eaten on Maunday Thursday and thereafter as a complement to boiled potatoes or boiled meat or fish. This is a sauce attributed to Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s mother Aja, though detractors say the first written record of the recipe did not appear in a Frankfurt cookbook until 1860, well after Goethe’s death and thus rather improbable. (I rather think it is probable that Aja Goethe may have actually concocted something similar: not all women of the time consulted recipe books to cook). This sauce, which calls to mind Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs, may well have been brought to the Rhineland by Roman troops, many of whom were from all regions of the Mediterranean and, upon retirement, stayed on to settle in Roman colonies (“colonia,” thus Cologne or Köln) all along the Rhine. Or perhaps the origin of the sauce is France’s Sauce Verte, brought over by the Huguenots. Whoever brought Green Sauce or Grün Soße to Germany, the Frankfurt version’s ingredients are uncontestable: borage, chervil, cress, parsley, burnet, sorrel, and chives; no one herb may constitute more than 30% of the mixture, and at least 70% must have been grown in the Frankfurt region. These are incorporated into sour cream and seasoned to taste. Here in Bonn, lemon balm or melissa and dill are sometimes substituted for some of the herbs.

Lemon balm, also known as Melissa

Lemon balm, also known as Melissa

I am additionally curious about bitter herbs, as bitterness, although one of the five taste principles that are fundamental to Chinese cooking, is not a pleasant or welcome sensation, unless learned and acquired as part of one’s food culture. Bitterness, for many cultures, is equated with curing and cleansing, particularly of the liver. There is a scientific basis for this, as antioxidants such as polyphenols and flavonoids, which are fundamental to good health and well-being, do taste bitter. As Dr. Maturin, in Patrick O’Brian’s sea novels, said, unless the medicine tasted unbearably bitter, his sailor patients didn’t regard it as particularly efficacious. Could the bitter herbs for the Passover meal be linked to the ancient Mediterranean practice of eating and celebrating the first spring greens?

In Southeast Asian as well as South Asian and North Asian food cultures, the bitter melon, variously known as ampalaya and karela, has always been regarded as a health food, though not necessarily eaten because of that, but primarily relished for its own flavour and crisp texture. Okinawans attribute their longevity to a regular intake of bitter melon. Its blood-sugar stabilizing qualities have now been recognized and it can be ingested in the form of tea or tablets, for those unable to tolerate eating it fresh. As a child I could not bear it, and preferred the pale, less bitter types, but now as an adult, I have become very fond of it; the bitterer the better. The small, dark, densely corrugated ones with pointy ends, often called wild bitter melon, that are found in South Asian food shops are extremely bitter, and I am often delighted to find these and prepare them for a pinakbet (Ilocano braised vegetables), for their nostalgic association with home. For the burst of growth of plants in spring and for the health-giving qualities of greens, I am deeply grateful. For the equally vigorous growth of weeds, I am not so grateful, though I may yet try to eat them, if I cannot beat them. They may yet make a particularly efficacious spring tonic. Happy spring to all!

Easter wreath with quails eggs

Spring wreath with quail eggs