Friday, June 13, 2014

Nettle and Fox

We were huddled late last night on the floodlit platform of Northcote Station, me reading American Wife (which, you know, if you're into discomfiting novels about the sexual careers of Republican First Ladies, I highly recommend) and Tim stolidly trying not to make eye-contact with the paranoid shouty man on the other side of the tracks. And then, all of a sudden, insouciantly snuffling about, as suburban as your family dog, was a fox. She wasn't in a hurry. She sauntered her way along the outer edge of the platform, took in the pedestrians walking near her up the path, followed her nose along a fence line, and then, a few metres beyond the edge of the platform, slipped under a fence and loped across the tracks. If I'd had a sausage, not that I'm in the habit of travelling with sausages, I could have tossed it to her and she would have taken it. She might even have taken it from my hand, she was so unruffled by our human presence.

I really did wish I'd had a sausage. And/or a camera.

We were thrilled. We'd brushed with some mythical creature, like a Tasmanian tiger or a unicorn, this doggy beast, not much bigger than our (admittedly enormous) cats, dusky auburn furred with a dark brown tip to her tail and dark brown legs, who'd paused long enough and close enough that we could see the smile of her foxy mouth, skinny, unworried, out on the town, looking for - I don't know - the odds and ends of people's fish and chips? the good-tasting things that get dropped near public bins? rats?  We probably shouldn't have been thrilled, given our duties to our chooks (although it's hard to imagine such a skinny little carnivore making much headway with the 4kg (+ beak) of Esme or Shirley Australorp). I know they're killers (who isn't, really? not even the veganiest of us can survive without displacing someone else from their habitat). Sometimes they kill creatures whose deaths in turn affect whole systems and their inhabitants. On the other paw, those systems are themselves so irreparably disrupted that in some cases a fox might have a stabilising effect. I'm thinking of rabbits, of course. Another dear carnivore friend of mine, Harriet Cat, amazingly caught herself a sparrow yesterday morning, then dismembered it on my Nepalese felt rug. Bad cat, sweet sparrow, but then, too many sparrows aren't so sweet, and a cat.owes it to herself to eat, and better to eat free-range sparrow than fish trawled out of the ocean and sold in tins, so good cat.

So we were thrilled. I love a feral.

Last year a nettle sprang up unbidden in one of our veggie patches. Nettles are infamous for the formic acid they carry in their hairs, and it's true, if you touch a bare nettle with your bare skin, there will be itching. But! the dudes are edible, and high in iron and calcium! And it is the firm belief of my beloved, an amateur cheesesmith, that they can somehow be used as a kind of rennet-substitute to assist in the coagulation of milk (as, allegedly, can fig-sap and mallow). The thought of growing something as notoriously badass in our vegetable patch appealed – the vegetable-growing equivalent of whatever we experienced in socialising with last night's fox – so we let last year's nettle go to seed, and this year have had ten thousand nettle seedlings to contend with.

Nettles nettling.

We've been chucking nettles into soups with such abandon you'd think we hadn't heard of other greens. They're best harvested by someone adept in the use of scissors and plastic bags, or someone with a pair of gloves, although the people who talk about grasping the nettle (presumably bare-handed) always say it like it's a good thing, so you're welcome to conduct that experiment in your own time. Once they've been cooked they're 100% sting free, and taste ... sort of underwhelming ... and look sort of emerald-fading-to-khaki and soggy. I have been talking bold talk about nettle pesto and nettle gnocci and nettle spanakopita, but these pleasures are yet to transpire. I think I'm more wrapped in the idea of my own derring-do than the actual culinary experience. Prickly ferals on a plate, ftw.


  1. I suspect you will have nettles forever. We had some introduced with some mulch a few years ago and I still get fanged by them while weeding. And people tell you that if you grasp them firmly they won't sting. They lie.
    And I hear you about the magic of seeing a fox. When we lived in country NSW, we often saw them - and it was always a thrill. And seeing fox cubs early one morning makes me smile in retrospect still.

  2. Nettles forever - that's what we're going for, although if we eat all these before they go to seed, we might miss out on eternal nettledom. I let a lettuce go to seed in the same patch, and there's now a minor forest of lettuces and nettles.

    I get pretty excited about seeing any mammal. I cross the road to increase the chances of being able to pat a dog, but there's something about the wildness and rareness of a fox. Fox cubs would be beyond gorgeous. What a lucky thing for you to have seen them.

  3. Delightful. I haven't seen any foxes in Lane Cove (or nettles, possibly), but a few years ago we were in Berlin and one night we were walking back to our (holiday) apartment in Schoeneberg after a dinner party (easily the most glamorous line I have written in my life) and suddenly, walking ahead of us on the footpath, was a rather sweet little fox. And there was snow and may also have been a moon. But mostly there was a fox and it was really something to see. And we wished for sausages to feed her, too! No doubt a distant cousin of your fox. More nettle recipes needed. Thanx.

  4. I love the fox encounter. It's nice to see a bit of wildness peeping to the fore, just to remind us of its existence. As much as I don't want foxes eating my ducks/chickens, I hate thinking their habitats are being ground away, bit by bit, and I love hearing about them scrounging an existence in the urban environment anyway. It has a 'f*#k the man' feeling to it. Go fox!
    I am very happy to hear about your nettle situation, as I have two nettles that have sprung up in my orchard and I am letting them go to seed in the hope that I will have a nettle forest.

  5. Oh how lovely, Kate! I made some nettle pesto on Sunday, so I'll post my method soon (though it's pretty intuitive really: put ingredients in blender, blend, eat).

  6. Yay for autonomous orchard nettles, Bek! And yep, good work, fox (may you survive joyously on a diet of humans' leftovers and moribund exotic rodents).

  7. I think nettles are good for the compost too they break it down quicker, perhaps I shall try some soup.