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A sting in the tale… how NI woman’s fascination with nettles inspired new health business

Ex-air stewardess builds brand from the ground up

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Noreen loves her nettles

Noreen loves her nettles

Noreen is reaping the health benefits of nettles

Noreen is reaping the health benefits of nettles

Noreen's nettle tea

Noreen's nettle tea

Noreen has a range of nettle-based products

Noreen has a range of nettle-based products

One of Noreen's nettle products

One of Noreen's nettle products

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Noreen loves her nettles

Nettles may have put a sting into many childhoods, but one business owner believes we should make them our best friend.

Noreen Van Der Velde is currently harvesting fresh nettles which she’ll use in myriad ways — including tea, salves and hair tonics.

“It’s the young ones you really have to use, they’re the best ones for tea,” says Noreen, explaining the plant’s season is April until June, “especially if you’re making the likes of nettle soup or nettle pesto.

“I make nettle hummus; I even chopped nettles on the top of shop -bought pizza with additional cheese a few days ago… Any of the hot liquid will kill the sting straight away.

“There’s a tiny little flower on nettles and once it starts to flower, you shouldn’t use the leaves then.”

Noreen was introduced to the humble stinging nettle thanks to her great grandmother — who lived until she was 103.

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Noreen is reaping the health benefits of nettles

Noreen is reaping the health benefits of nettles

Noreen is reaping the health benefits of nettles

“I always remember the stories my mum would have told me about my great granny, and she would have sent her husband away off to fields to bring back the nettles and make nettle champ, nettle tea and nettle soup.

“They’re an amazing plant or weed or herb or whatever you’d like to call them… I just became totally obsessed.”

“Some older generations would have stung themselves,” she continues, “and said it would have helped with arthritis and also hay fever.”

“They would have stung themselves at the beginning of the season at the onset of symptoms,” she says, though not advocating the behaviour.

As she prepares to showcase her wares at the first Lough Neagh Artisans Market at Lock Keeper’s Cottage, Toome, today (from 1-5pm), she explains how flying high led to a business where she keeps her feet firmly on the ground.

“I was a flight attendant for 26 years,” explains Noreen. “The majority was long haul and I started off in the early 1990s for Caledonian Airways.

“I did a lot of very long haul work with them at Gatwick.

“Everybody who knows me knows that I wanted to work for British Airways so I tried and was lucky enough to get in. But it was 1991 and during the Gulf War and recession and they put me on hold until 1994.

“In between that I came home and flew for Jersey European which became FlyBe. I left them and went back to London in 1994.

“I flew long haul for BA all over the world which was fabulous.

“At 16, I went to catering college because I always had a love and passion for cooking. I did languages at school because I knew I did want to travel, and I thought the way to do it is to apply for an airline.

“Basically, it was my education; once you get the travel bug, that was it, I was off.”

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Noreen has a range of nettle-based products

Noreen has a range of nettle-based products

Noreen has a range of nettle-based products

In her 40s, and now running the Vandees Boutique B&B with her husband Jean Paul in Aghalee, Noreen discovered how the health-boosting herb may help with hormonal changes caused by the menopause.

“I was at home but was still going away quite a lot and I wanted to stay at home more. I just felt my career was coming to an end and at that stage we were doing the B&B. I was sort of mixing it all.

“I was Googling natural remedies and nettles came up and made me think of my great-grandmother. We were growing our own vegetables outside and there were nettles out there.

“Once I started Googling many of the benefits, it was the beginning of my obsession. I started letting them all grow and started drinking fresh nettle tea.

“With having the B&B, with nettle tea season, I would be offering it to our guests as a bit of a novelty.

“I was drying nettles for the winter to keep me through, and guests were asking if I sold it.”

After taking voluntary redundancy from her airline job in 2016, she’s never looked back, reaping the health benefits of the green plant we so often avoid.

“Nettles are a natural painkiller; I’d even have a cup of nettle tea if I’d a headache — gone,” she says.

“I would say before anyone would embark on using it, it can interact with certain medications, so they’d need to check with a trained herbalist or your doctor if you want to incorporate it into your life.”

The hot stuff aside — though Noreen says the surprising ingredient works in pasta dishes, soups and curries — she’s also concentrating on marketing a nettle salve and cordial, both of which will be coming out this year.

“The cordial’s called The Real Sting. I worked with the Foodovation Centre in the North West Regional College on that. I’m looking at also developing a nettle gummy as well from my cordial.

“I make a hair tonic with nettles because I felt my hair was getting thinner as I was getting older. I haven’t noticed my hair getting any thinner since.”

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One of Noreen's nettle products

One of Noreen's nettle products

One of Noreen's nettle products

The Toome market is a pilot to showcase local produce, arts and crafts from the shoreline of Lough Neagh and right across Northern Ireland.

Looking forward to the event, Noreen’s geared up to chat with interested consumers, something she calls “nettle natter”.

“There’s a lot of nettle natter to be had. A lot of people when they come to me are surprised, they may have had a bad experience when they were a child.

“It’s a bit of an enemy for some people but I think, make it your best friend. I harvest nettles and they’re all handpicked and inspected by me. Butterflies love nettles, hence why I’ve a wee butterfly on my packaging.”

“Obviously wear your gloves,” she laughs when recommending how to forage for nettles safely.

“The young nettle tops are the best and what you should use. I normally use the first few leaves of the tops and maybe a few leaves down.”

Her tea captured the attention of the Guild of Fine Foods, which awarded it a gold star Great Taste Award in 2019.

“I just put it into a pot with boiling water, leave it for five minutes or so and the fresh nettle tea is delicious, very drinkable,” says Noreen, who stresses how nutrient-rich the plant is.

Nettles contain vitamins A, C and K, and magnesium, iron, silica and zinc.

“It’s a tonic generally if you’re feeling run-down or lethargic. If you’d a cup of nettle tea, you could be supersonic,” she jokes.

Admission to the market today is free and will include cookery demonstrations and visitors can take boat trips from noon or indulge in an eel supper at Grans.

For more info on Lough Neagh Artisans, see facebook.com/loughneaghartisans.

For information on Noreen’s Nettles, see facebook.com/NoreensNettles


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