Editor’s Note: Annette and Robert Bonnell, my friends and correspondents in France, love to visit the various food and cultural festivals put on by villages and towns throughout rural France. Here is their latest report:
Every April the Norman village of La Haye-de-Routot comes alive for one weekend with its nettle festival. Located three quarters of the way from Paris to the coastal town of Le Havre, the village draws several thousand visitors to Orties Folies (“Nettle Madness”), the annual celebration of this prickly plant.
Annette and I discovered culinary nettles a few years ago when we ordered a nettle pizza in Berkeley. It was great. So when we learned that the nettle festival was taking place around the time we would be in Paris, we decided to go. This involved taking the 45-minute train trip to Vernon, near Monet’s Giverny gardens, and then renting a car for the additional hour to drive to La Haye-de-Routot.
Festivals put on by villages celebrating some local delicacy are very common in France. There are festivals dedicated to pink garlic (Lautrec), chili peppers (Espelette in Basque country), squash of all sorts (Saint-Rémy-sur-Loire in Anjou), you name it. Having a festival built around nettles is a bit out of the ordinary, but still the festival pulls them in. Typically a festival built around a single food item features a number of stands selling the theme product in various forms and other stands selling arts and crafts. Often there’s live music. There’s usually a sit-down meal featuring the delicacy in most of the courses. This was indeed what we found at Orties Folies. In the little park in which it took place there were stands with nettle plants for sale, nettle-based fabrics, nettle-based cosmetics, nettle muffins, nettle jam, nettle ragout, nettle cookbooks and of course a nettle-based sit-down lunch. There was a pen of nettle-eating goats. One stand where nettle muffins, nettle jam and many other nettle products were sold was run by a man who had come all the way from Belgium to sell his wares. His slogan, shown in the photo, could be translated as “Nettles – your best natural source of well-being.”
Those who have not eaten nettles, but have been stung by them, might be forgiven for being dubious about all of this, but nettles are quickly disarmed by parboiling. I’ve seen some recipes requiring ten minutes of cooking for absolute safety, but I’ve been able to produce painless nettles after about 30 seconds in a rapid boil. Like more mundane vegetables, the longer that nettles are cooked, the less flavor they have.
The lunch, which was served without much fuss or fancy place settings, started with velouté aux orties, a soup with lots of ground-up nettles, potato, cream and butter. The nettle flavor really came through. This was followed by the main course – riz basmati au pissenlit (Basmati rice with dandelion greens),poulet au bon foin sauce Mélilot (chicken with a cream sauce laced with sweet clover leaves) and flan d’ortie (sort of a nettle custard). This being Normandy, the dessert plate was the apple-based confit de pomme cannelle avec crème anglaise, but it included a nettle cookie on the side. And again since this was Normandy, the accompanying drink was cidre, not wine.
La Haye-de-Routot opens all of its attractions during the two days in which the festival is held. One is a the thatched roof Musée du Sabot (Clog Museum), documenting what was formerly a local industry. The clogs with three-masted sailing ships on them are not to be missed. Another attraction is a bread making demonstration at the Four à Pain, a former bakery dating from 1845 with a wood-burning oven which can cook 130 loaves of bread simultaneously. (Hint #1: an oven of this size should be much hotter at the front than at the back, since the loaves at the back will be in the oven longer than those in the front. Hint #2: After heating the oven, cook the bread first. Then cook the brioches, since they require a lower cooking temperature.)
The other wonder of La Haye-de-Routot which is open during the festival is the Chapelle de Sainte Anne, a small chapel built into the base of a yew tree. Evidently the Druid spirit lives on in Normandy, nourished by copious nettles.