In a green haven above the town of Le Val d'Ajol, Nicole Hanni grows nettles to make delicious products including quiche, jelly, syrup, and ketchup. Passionate about the land and soil, she learned her craft by testing different cultivation techniques and developing her own recipes. We met her at her farm in May during the first harvest of the year to discover this surprisingly rich and versatile plant!
Getting to know Nicole Hanni, nettle farmer
At first glance, Le Clos Léry looks like a traditional farmhouse of the southern Vosges Mountains. The farm was built in the 17th century in a peaceful clearing above Le Val d'Ajol. The thick grey stone walls of the imposing exterior support a long, tiled roof. The cross standing in front of the farm brings a final picturesque touch. You won't find any dairy cows, pigs, or rabbits here. No, this farm is more ... prickly! For about fifteen years now, Nicole Hanni has been growing nettles that she transforms into delicious, atypical products.
Ruins covered in nettles
Nicole grew up in the mountains of Appenzell in Switzerland. The idea of growing nettles came quite naturally. "When we arrived here in 2006 with my father, the house had been abandoned for several years and there were already a lot of nettles!" she says.
But at the time, not everyone thought growing and transforming nettles was a good idea. "Everyone said we were crazy! But they're everywhere in the Vosges Mountains. It's an easy plant to grow and process, and nettles are rich in minerals like iron, magnesium, and calcium. There’s a hundred times more than in an apple!" says Nicole.
The speed of the plant's growth and easy harvest also convinced her to take the plunge. She explains that "there are plenty of berry producers all over the Vosges, but it takes several years for the plants to start giving fruit. With nettles, you can harvest six times or more in the first year!" says Nicole Hanni.
And today, nettles are in fashion. They're on the menu at prestigious French restaurants, and many of the inns of the Vosges Mountains have incorporated the plant into their recipes.
Horses and nettles: the perfect coupling!
You'll obviously see lots of nettles at Le Clos Léry, but also a few horses. Before growing nettles, Nicole Hanni was a riding instructor. She offers horseback riding outings to discover Le Val d'Ajol and the southern Vosges Mountains. You can head out on your own for an hour-long ride on specially marked trails, and she also organises equestrian summer camps for kids.
Nicole's horses are not just here to take visitors on a pleasant ride, they’ve also been helping with nettle cultivation since the beginning by providing the nitrogen that nettles love. In winter, a layer of manure is spread over the nettle crops to promote regrowth. The harmony between the equines and the Urticas ensure Le Clos Léry's high quality product. "The horses and nettles form a circular economy," concludes the farmer.
The Hanni family boast numerous culinary innovations, above and beyond herbal tea and traditional nettle soup. Nicole says that her father, a chef, "learned how to make nettle products in Switzerland" and that when they arrived at Le Clos Léry, "he quickly started serving meals at the farm using nettles: soup, lasagne, and even nettle ice cream!" They then began packaging products, starting with nettle syrup and sweet nettle jelly. "If you like the combination of sweet and savoury, it goes very well with goat cheese instead of honey, for example," suggests Nicole.
The Vosges Mountains, a paradise for nettles
To thrive, nettles need a lot of water, nitrogen, and a bit of sun. Suffice to say that the Vosges Mountains are a favourite place for this plant! Nicole Hanni says that "for the first ten years, we planted the nettles in the garden in direct sunlight. But for the last three years, I've had only 3 to 4 harvests instead of the usual 5 to 6. Global warming is clearly having an effect! So, I moved the nettles to an area below the garden with less sun and more humidity. I also began using permaculture methods by planting currants, blackcurrants, and blueberries to provide shade and humidity for the nettles". The fruits ripen during the second nettle harvest in June, when jams and fruit syrups are made alongside Le Clos Léry nettle jelly.
One reason nettles are so abundant in the Vosges Mountains is because the plant has a simple and efficient reproduction process. Nicole Hanni explains that "to reproduce, the male pollen is carried by the wind to meet the female".
Yes, there are male nettles and female nettles! The farmer says that "males prefer gardens with loose soil where they can grow large productive leaves, while female nettles prefer piles of stones in the forest or on an abandoned plot of land". You can easily tell the difference: males have large light-coloured leaves, while females have dark leaves with a stem that’s purple at the top. More advice from the specialist: "it's better to get stung by males! You'll only be itchy for three hours, but if you get stung by a female, you'll have little white blisters on your skin for 3 days!”.
The products are sold directly on the farm in the Le Clos Léry’s little shop. It's just a ten-minute drive from Le Val d'Ajol in the southern Vosges Mountains along a beautiful road through dense forests.
Today, Nicole Hanni is pulling back from her horseback riding activities to transform Le Clos Léry into a third place, an eco-farm that will host several projects related to nature. There will soon be a garden with medicinal plants and a seed library. The farm will still grow nettles, much to the delight of foodies!
Le Clos Léry: 10 minutes from Le Val d'Ajol (88)
Products made from nettles for sale on the farm starting at €5: jellies, syrups, ketchup, jams, vinaigrettes, soups, and more