Grasp the nettles!

Words by:
Nikki Bawn
Featured in:
July 2018

As summer hots up, hedgerows and gardens are bursting with foliage, fruit and flowers, all ripe for the picking when it comes to collecting ingredients for the perfect cocktail, says Nikki Bawn of Boggle Lane Foods.

It’s no secret that humans have had a love affair with alcoholic beverages for thousands of years. Potent home brews are as old as the hills, from Roman wine to the mead of Vikings. So long as sugar is present, the process of brewing alcohol is possible, and ingenuity has seen spruce, honey, tree sap, barley, hops, sugar cane and even onions used to create potent tipples.

According to research, drinking alcohol leads to the release of endorphins in areas of our brains that produce feelings of pleasure and reward – so it’s no wonder we love it so much!

Recently cocktails have come back into favour (minus the umbrella and cherry on a stick!) and with one for every occasion and taste, it’s not hard to see why.

For me, alfresco dining and homemade cocktails make summer evenings extra heady and decadent and what could be more fresh and seasonal than using foraged ingredients to create a drink with a difference? So, when I’m out and about gathering ingredients for the Boggle Lane meal range, or one of our supper events, I’ve also got an eye out for what I can use in those evening refreshments too.

You don’t need to splurge lots of cash to create an impressive drinks menu and it’s amazing to think that an array of delicious drinks can be produced from as little as just three ingredients – some of these are freely available and right under your nose!

Most people know about sloe gin and buckthorn brandy, but there’s so much more to hedgerow booze. One of the most elegant is elderflower champagne, which is sweet and delicate and can be made from items already in stock – sugar, water and elderflowers – although I learned quickly that brewing this lively liquid requires large, flexible, plastic containers to avoid unscheduled explosions!

Many of the natural treasures to be found have had a very bad press and are generally referred to as weeds, but those in the know see these nutritional flavour bombs as far more.

Dandelions and even nettles are just two of the many big-hitters in mother nature’s medicinal armoury and they’re also great for making summer drinks.

Dandelions are rich in vitamins A, B, C, D, K and a good provider of minerals like potassium, calcium, manganese, and magnesium. They have more beta carotene than carrots and even more iron than spinach. They’re a great source of natural enzymes, antioxidants – good for liver and kidney function. The flowers add flavour and beautiful sunshine colour to drinks too.

Nettles are also renowned for amazing health benefits and are bursting with nutrients including vitamins C, B, K, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. It’s surprising to think that a cup of cooked nettles has nearly 430mg of calcium, which is almost half the recommended daily intake – a cup of milk only has around 300mg! Using young leaves to make a gorgeous green cordial will taste like nothing else you’ve ever had and is great as a mixer or as a base for brewing.

Whoever heard of healthy grog? Well you have now, and you don’t need a stockpile of demijohns or a science lab to make it!

As any self-respecting, modern mixologist will tell you, using these ‘weeds’ to create layered flavours and heightened refreshment is totally on trend! Visit any of the swankiest establishments and you are bound to find a drinks list that reads like a botanical encyclopaedia with things like honeysuckle, juniper, elder and nettles being sourced to make wild crafted cocktails.

Making syrups and cordials is a great way to start experimenting. They are so easy and you can add lemon balm, mint, nettle leaves, dandelions or other edible flowers, and, hey presto, you have art in a glass!

So next time you stroll around the garden or along the hedgerow, have a peruse and get inspired to create summer treats almost too good to drink – well almost!

After a hard day’s work in the Boggle Lane kitchen, I love to slump in a sun lounger with a freshly foraged cocktail in hand and the beauty of the summer sun setting behind the hills of the Wolds.

After all, it’s the simple things that really do make life so much more delicious!

200g freshly picked nettle tops
1kg granulated sugar
10 tbsp lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon or a good handful of lemon balm
500ml water
Sterile glass bottles with tops, either screw or cork (or a cool glass and ice if you’re going to sample it straight way!)

Grab a carrier bag (or Bag for Life of course), put on some gloves and find some young nettle growth – usually at the top of each plant.

When you have gathered a bag full of tender leaves, wash them thoroughly.

Add the sugar to the water and bring to the boil, simmering until dissolved.

Stir in the nettles and lemon zest, or lemon balm and steep in the hot liquid until it has cooled.

Once cooled, drain the liquid through a sieve (gently does it, be careful not to force the liquid through).

You can, if you wish, add some green nettle flecks to your cordial by dunking some nettles in a separate pan of boiling water for about 3 minutes, then chopping them finely before adding to the cordial.

Pour the liquid through a funnel into clean bottles.

Serve with your favourite tipple e.g. whisky or gin, over ice, add a slice of lemon or lime and whatever else takes your fancy (I add a sprig of rosemary, washed wild flowers, or wild strawberries for extra fragrance and beauty).

That’s it – it is as simple as that.

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