The Spring Pottage, or how to properly prepare nettles and other potherbs.

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.

In the days before we had year-round access to produce, spring was when people often addressed nutritional deficiencies of the winter by loading up on the early greens that pop up. I know that you have been told that they did this by drinking a lot of “nourishing infusions” but that’s not the case. They mostly just ate them. 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.

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

Potherbs are the key ingredient that often distinguishes a pottage from other dishes. The base recipes for the pottages are often similar incorporating different potherbs and vegetables being used as they became available during the growing season.

I shared my base recipe for a spring pottage when I posted my Brotchán Foltchep recipe, years ago. When I make a nettle pottage, I simply replace the leeks with blanched and chopped nettles. Robert May, a well-known cook who worked for Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, shared this receipt. A rack of mutton would be cut perpendicularly to the spine and include the 16 rib bones. You can also still purchase veal knuckles. You could also use a whole chicken or any game animal.

Pottage of Mutton, Veal, or Beef, in the English fashion
Robert May 1660
Cut a rack of mutton in two pieces, and take a knuckle of veal, and boil it in a gallon pot or pipkin, with a good store of herbs and a pint of oatmeal
chopped amongst the herbs, as time, sweet marjoram, parsley chives, salt, succory, marigold-leaves, and flowers, strawberry-leaves, violet-leaves, beets, borage, sorrel, blood-wort, sage, penny-royal; and being finely boiled, serve them on fine carved sippets with the mutton and veal, &c.

Modern Directions
1. Place the meat in a pot and cover it with water.
2. Mince the herbs and then throw them in the pot with the oatmeal.
3. Simmer this for a long time until the meat is cooked off the bone.
4. Remove the bones from the pottage and serve over sippits.

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. The English surgeon, John Gerard wrote of a pottage made with mutton bones, cleavers, and oatmeal. Elizabeth Clelland shares a recipe for a summer pottage in her cookbook published in 1755, that calls for sorrel, beet greens, endive, and spinach.

I think clever women just devised a way that was easier to get certain greens into people in the form of creamy soups. That brings me to another important part of this which is how to cook with leafy greens.

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 walls of Taigh-Dubh like the one below) 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.

A Scottish Taigh-Dubh By Dorothea Witter-Rieder – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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% [1] so if you discard the water the greens are first cooked in, you are pouring a lot of them down the drain. 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.

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. I might add a post about using the roots for decoctions and making nettle drink at some point.

My recommendation to you is to harvest your spring greens and eat them in tasty dishes when they are fresh, and then move on to other greens as they pop up. It’s far more enjoyable than choking down a bland infusion of dead dry leaves and it’s a little safer in terms of the oxalate content.


[1] 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. and 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.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

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