Posted by: Didapper PJ16 JUN 2011
British pubs are known for organising daft events, and I had intended this week to recommend one of the wackiest — the World Stinging Nettle Eating Championship, which has been held annually on 19 June at the Bottle Inn in Marshwood, Dorset, since the 1980s.
But please do not dash down to Dorset tomorrow because the Bottle Inn now seems to have closed down after several years of struggling to survive under a series of licensees.
The pub’s nettle-eating contest allegedly had its origins in a local dispute over whose farm produced the longest nettles. One farmer turned up with a specimen some 15ft 6in (4.725m) long, promising to eat it if anyone found a bigger one. Of course, a rival took up the challenge and produced an even longer specimen, and the farmer had to keep his rash promise. And so the championship was born.
Apparently the secret of eating nettles is to put the stalks into the mouth confidently, taking care that they do not touch the lips. Whether or not you avoid being stung, the iron content of the leaves will turn your tongue black.
Nettle-eating also has other alleged physiological symptoms about which the competition organisers have been rather coy.
There is a long-standing belief that grasping nettles firmly will reduce the risk of being stung, since it is alleged that the hairs on the leaves will sting you if you brush against them lightly but not if you clutch them tight. This conviction has resulted in the expression “to grasp the nettle”, meaning to tackle a difficult problem boldly.
The belief has a long history in botanical lore. It first appeared in print in Elizabethan times, when John Lyly, in his 1578 book ‘Euphues; the anatomy of wyt’, wrote: “True it is Philautus that he which toucheth ye nettle tenderly, is soonest stung.”
And in 1753 the dramatist and poet Aaron Hill put it into verse: “Tender-handed stroke a nettle, / And it stings you, for your pains: / Grasp it like a man of mettle, / And it soft as silk remains.”