World Nettle Eating Championships 2016 in Marshwood
PUBLISHED: 16:58 13 June 2016 | UPDATED: 16:58 13 June 2016
There is no place for weeds at the World Nettle Eating Championships, as Sophia Moseley discovers, it requires a special type of competitor with tough taste buds and lips of iron
It can turn a happy family picnic into disaster and make the calmest of gardeners yelp in pain; it is also claimed to be a cure for a host of ailments from dandruff to gout and rheumatism to hay fever, and it offers an edible haven for caterpillars.
I speak of the humble Urtica dioica or nettle - a prolific weed that arrived in Britain with the Romans. It seems that the Romans thought nothing of giving themselves a good thrashing with bunches of these stinging weed to warm up limbs and improve circulation in our colder climate.
Whilst I doubt that there are many who would copy our Roman occupiers most of us have experienced the after-effects of brushing against a stinging nettle; the itchy lumps and bumps left behind after the nettles poison-filled needles have released their lethal concoction of formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine and serotonin.
So imagine devouring stem after stem of this vicious flora, not I might add, after the sting has been neutralised through cooking, but in its raw freshly picked state. This is exactly what happens every June at the World Nettle Eating Championships held at the Bottle Inn, in the quiet west Dorset village of Marshwood.
Nigel and Chrissy Blake, landlords of the Bottle Inn have been in charge of this annual event for the past four years, although they knew nothing of this when the rustic charm of the Bottle Inn caught their attention. At that time, their most pressing problem was a near derelict building with a collapsed roof. “We do like a challenge!” said Chrissy.
Since taking over the 16th century thatched country pub the couple have worked hard to turn the business around and were awarded the CAMRA 2014 Pub of the Year and featured in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide; they also made the village pub an ‘Asset of Community Value’ ensuring its continued survival for future generations.
When Nigel and Chrissy found out that, along with the pub, they had inherited the nettle eating competition an ‘unofficial’ committee was formed with local organic farmer Simon Sleigh - who acts as compère at the event, and Dave Hutchings who is in charge of cutting the hundreds of stinging stems from a nearby field that belongs to Richard Hooper.
On the morning of the competition it’s all (gloved) hands on deck as the car park is transformed into the competitors arena; caterers set up and the skittle alley is taken over by the local brewers, who organise the popular beer festival which is accompanied by local band No Fixed Abode whose repertoire of bluegrass and rock music soon gets toes tapping.
The rules of this painful competition are strict: first you have to sign a disclaimer and once you have sat down you cannot leave the arena. You have to strip the stem bare of every leaf and if you’re sick you’re disqualified. You are allowed to drink water - some competitors dip the leaves in water first as they think it helps reduce the sting. Finally, you have exactly one hour to consume as many stinging nettle leaves as possible!
Before proceedings got underway I managed to speak to Andy Teague. A dapper chap sporting a magnificent ginger beard who also turned out to be President of the Wessex Beardsmen, This was his first attempt at the competition and he had eaten two leaves the day before to practice and shared with me his special technique for scoffing stingers. “I was told by a reliable source how you should fold the leaf to minimise the sting.”
And so the games commence. With numbed lips, black teeth and tongues, it looks like some sort of ancient barbaric ritual, but just what is it like at the receiving end?
Three times champion, 25-year-old footballer and boxer, Pete Wellman was persuaded to take part by his sister and friends. “We flipped a coin and I lost!” he grimaces.
But having consumed 64ft of nettles, he was the clear winner in 2015, although he confessed that his hands tingled for several days afterwards and the iron overload (nettles are rich in iron and calcium) took its toll on his digestive system!
“I’m a big eater anyway and I got used to the stinging sensation after I’d eaten 20ft, you just have to try not to think about it. Next year I’m going for 100ft.”
“My mouth was buzzing for the rest of the evening but that soon goes after a few drinks!”
Then there was the female winner, 25-year-old keep-fit fanatic, Naomi Harris who hadn’t even thought about entering and had pitched up for the music and beer festival.
“I started off slowly with one leaf at a time then speeded up to half a stem, it was surprising how quickly the hour went,” she said.
Although no stranger to unusual events, Naomi has also taken part in a charity bungee jump, she’s keen to defend her title. “I shall prepare myself next time and start off much faster.”
I can’t help but feel that you need to have a bit of the masochist in you to enter this championship, and by comparison to a few seconds of Roman nettle flagellation it seems marginally less peculiar!
The World Nettle Eating Championships are on Saturday 18 June at The Bottle Inn, Marshwood.
Find out more: at bottle-inn.net
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