The Northern Ireland woman whose home-made nettle tea is providing health benefits in all corners of the world
Inspired by her grandmother, Noreen Van der Velde from Aghalee began making nettle tea for its rich nutritious properties. The former long haul cabin crew worker tells Helen Carson how her new venture has really taken off
Co Antrim woman Noreen Van der Velde, who began making her own fresh nettle tea to help with the symptoms of menopause, has bagged a top award for her healthy brew.
The 53-year-old, who runs a B&B in Aghalee with her Dutch husband Jean-Paul (57), was inspired by her great grandmother who swore by the restorative powers of the humble nettle.
"My grandmother lived until she was 103 and I grew up watching her make nettle tea," says Noreen. "I'm not saying that's why my great grandmother lived so long but I do believe nettles have the potential to improve our health. And because it was believed nettles can help to balance hormones I thought I would try it."
She points out nettles are rich in nutrients, containing vitamins A, C, K, magnesium, iron, potassium, manganese, silica and calcium as well as magnesium and serotonin which are relaxing.
While Noreen initially made the tea to help alleviate the symptoms of menopause and improve general wellbeing, the vitamin-packed leafy brew caused quite a stir with her overseas guests.
"The nettle tea was just for me, but then my guests wanted to try it too - so I put some in their rooms."
From here the business began to bed down, and has recently won a coveted Taste Award: "I took the nettle tea to Moira Food Festival last year and it sold out in one day."
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And with her B&B guests taking the home-made tea back with them to all corners of the world, its popularity has grown.
"The latest packet of tea went to Chile," Noreen says. "Another guest let her friend try it, and now their local pub in Kent stocks it."
Noreen decided to try her luck with the nettle tea, entering it into a Taste award where it's just won a gold star for its taste and clarity.
While nettles are vitamin and mineral rich, she agrees people often have a negative association with the stinging plant: "Many have had an unpleasant experience with nettles when they were thrown into them as a child.
"But I hate to see people dousing them in weed killer because they are better for you than the vegetables you grow." The nettle crop first sprung up in a corner of Noreen and Jean-Paul's half-acre garden a couple of years ago: "My husband was putting all the grass cuttings there and because nettles love nitrogen they began to grow."
And once the demand for Noreen's nettle tea blossomed she realised the seasonal plant would run out in the winter months.
"I was used to drying out home-grown herbs like sage so I decided to do the same with the nettles for a year-round supply," she says.
With nettle season lasting just a few months in spring there wouldn't be enough of the precious crop for the sought-after tea which meant Noreen couldn't keep up with demand.
She harvests only the tops from the youngest plants to achieve the tea's sweet taste, gathering seeds from the older plants to be used as a food supplement.
"Having seen so many people adding protein powders to cereal and smoothies I thought about making powdered nettles," she adds.
Now her body-boosting green powders can also be mixed into smoothies and porridge for an extra healthy kick.
"Nettles contain so many good vitamins and minerals which support the kidneys and adrenals. They are said to help hormone balance and while some of the medicinal benefits are scientifically proven, more research is needed in other areas."
Noreen has written to both Queen's University, Belfast and the Ulster University proposing science students there focus on the plant in order to provide new, credible findings on their health benefits.
She says a cup of nettle tea can help soothe a headache, offset lethargy or act as a tonic during winter months, but also urges people to seek out their doctors' advice in advance as nettles can interact with some prescription medicines. "They are effective painkillers even though they can cause pain."
Noreen even bakes nettle biscuits which are snapped up at artisan food fairs. She has also taken the teas to St George's Market and Hillsborough Farmers' Market.
"Nettle powder and seeds can be used in baking, added to porridge or eaten with bread. They are good for your immune system so can stave off a cold and are great for detoxing."
And her nettle empire now includes a skincare cream which contains all natural ingredients as well as a preservative to meet current regulations.
"Coming into winter nettles can also help relieve the symptoms of arthritis and are natural painkillers," she says.
"But this is something people realised centuries ago and people would rub their limbs with nettles."
It's long been established that nettles can help with certain skin conditions - previously people would use a wash to apply to inflamed skin - but Noreen recommends it's best to take them in a tea.
But setting up the nettle tea business two years ago was quite a departure for Noreen who had worked as long haul cabin crew for various airlines, including British Airways, since the early Nineties.
She has travelled the world during her career taking in cities in America, Africa, the Far East, the Middle East and Australia. And it was during her high-flying career she met husband Jean-Paul.
"He was also working for BA and we met in Bangkok," she reveals. "He said to me he would love to go to Ireland to fish and that was the start of our relationship. He fished as a boy and I said he could come with me and fish. To this day he still hasn't gone fishing - he has a fishing rod, but has never used it once here."
Noreen opted to take redundancy two years ago, adding: "When I first began flying long haul I loved going to the Far East, America and Africa but then the destinations didn't excite me anymore so I knew my time in the job was over."
Before quitting the airline the couple set up the B&B which was a good fit for both: "I thought with our experience of customer service it would be a good opportunity," says Noreen. "My husband also speaks six languages so that's really helpful at making guests feel relaxed and at home from the moment they arrive.
"Jean-Paul fell in love with Northern Ireland - he thinks it is so beautiful here - so he ran the B&B when I was still working at BA. He had always wanted to be an actor so with our growing film industry he joined Extras Northern Ireland and has been in Game of Thrones, The Fall and Line of Duty."
Noreen's husband was a footballer in the Eighties and trained at the Ajax Football Academy with former international Ruud Gullit.
Noreen has even dipped her toe in the acting pond but adds "it's only for fun" while for Jean-Paul it's a brand new career.
And having spent so much of her life in the air, Noreen and Jean-Paul now take a road trip in Ireland every year.
"When I finished work I didn't want to go on an airplane again so we take holidays here," she explains.
The success of the tea-making business has even surprised Noreen, who is determined to spread the word about the health benefits of nettles.
She has been involved with various business groups, including Women in Business in a bid to take the nettle teas to the next level. She was short-listed for an investment award but didn't get through the final on International Women's Day last year at Galgorm Manor.
"It was the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever had to do in my life. I had to make a presentation to the judges and it was like Dragon's Den."
Undeterred, she will be putting her brewing nettle powerhouse brand to the test again to win the all-important investment.
"Guests at our B&B love the tea and enjoy taking some back to their family and friends as gifts because it is a Northern Ireland product."
Another selling point is the environmental awareness of harvesting nettles which butterflies lay their eggs on: "The nettle leaf curls round the butterflies' eggs so I never pick those leaves to allow the species to survive. It's an important part of my production and it is appreciated by customers."
Now the Van der Velde's rural Aghalee garden has been given over to the nettles, and one of Noreen's neighbours has offered her nettle patch, too.
"We will be building more beds next year because the nettles are taking over the garden. And I'm using the seeds from the existing nettles, as well."
For information on the Vandees Boutque B&B, and Noreen's Nettles, visit www.thevandees.co.uk