The Spring Pottage

Traditionally Imbolc was celebrated as the day that signified the beginning of the spring transition. As I’ve written extensively about that, I wanted to put this up before our green friends started to pop up and I thought today was fitting. Although with all the snow we have, it seems silly to be thinking of that now.

Spring is a time of year when people often addressed nutritional deficiencies of the winter by loading up on the early greens that pop up in the coolest days of early spring. I know that you have been told that they did this by drinking a lot of “nourishing infusions” but that’s not usually the case. They were more often eating the leaves and later they would harvest the roots for making nettle ale and medicinal decoctions.

It’s a long held Irish belief that eating nettles three times in May, specifically the three days between old May Day and new, would protect your health for the coming year. I think clever women just devised a way that was easier to get certain greens into people in the form of creamy soups.

Potherbs are the key ingredient that often distinguished a pottage from other gruels or thick porridges that people ate more regularly during the winter season. The base recipes for the pottages are often similar with different potherbs and vegetables being used as they became available during the growing season. Elizabeth Clelland shares a recipe for a summer pottage in her cookbook published in 1755, that reminds me of the summer soups made with cucumbers and lettuces.

Herbs put in the spring pottage were those that popped early in the spring and were said to nourish or “sweeten” the blood. Nettles, wild garlic, leeks, and cleavers were common ingredients in spring pottages. English herbalist John Gerard wrote of a pottage women made with mutton bones, cleavers and oatmeal.

I shared my base recipe for a spring pottage when I posted the Brotchán Foltchep recipe, years ago. When I make a nettle pottage, I simply replace the leeks with blanched and chopped nettles.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0527, Page 046 National Folklore Collection, UCD ca 1933

That brings me to another bit lost bit of knowledge which is how to cook with leafy greens. I can mention dozens of examples where cooks of old recommended blanching the leaves and tossing out the cooking water at least once before eating them. I was taught to do this three times for some greens like nettles. We sometimes used the first batch of nettle water as a hair rinse, or to wash our faces. I might add a post about using the roots for decoctions and making nettle beer later in the spring.

In The Scots Kitchen (1929) we are told to gather young nettles from patches growing high on the wall (nettles were often planted on the stone walls to dissuade visitors) and strip the 4 or 5 most tender young leaves from the top of the plant and then wash in several changes of salted water. So even though my family didn’t use salt, I started adding a little salt.

(While we are on the topic of Scottish dishes made with nettle…Nettle Kail is not synonymous with nettle soup. It’s a specific dish I will share the recipe for in a different post with pictures.)

There’s a very sensible reason for this. Nettles and a lot of other leafy wild greens are particularly high in soluble oxalates. Too much prevents our body’s assimilation of soluble calcium by binding with it to create insoluble complexes which contributes to diseases like kidney stones. Oxalates also contribute to inflammatory issues like gout.

Boiling leeches out soluble oxalates in vegetables by 30-87%, so you must discard the water the greens are first cooked in. It didn’t matter if you were putting it in a tart or soup. That’s how they managed greens. It’s the same way Southerners work with poke leaves, and it was used for other plants that might contain anti-nutrients, like in this receipt. My guess is that this Southern practice is a leftover remnant of that knowledge.

How to make Tartes of Spinage

Boyle your Spinage very tender, and three or foure apples with it, and when it is very tender, straine it through a faire cloth, and then season it with the yolk of an egge, Sugar, Sinamon, and Ginger.

Tartes of Borage after the same fashion.

A Book of Cookrye (England, 1591)

So my recommendation to you is to get back to seasonal living. Harvest your spring greens and eat them in tasty dishes when they are fresh, and then move on to other herbs as they pop up. It’s far more enjoyable than a bland infusion of dead dry leaves and probably a little safer when cooked properly.

Hamid, Ns Thakur, and Pradeep Kumar. ‘Anti-Nutritional Factors, Their Adverse Effects and Need for Adequate Processing to Reduce Them in Food’. AgricINTERNATIONAL 4, no. 1 (2017): 56.

Chai, Weiwen, and Michael Liebman. ‘Effect of Different Cooking Methods on Vegetable Oxalate Content’. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53, no. 8 (20 April 2005): 3027–30.