IMAGINE 60 people competitively chomping their way through hundreds of feet of stinging nettles.
Add in generous splashes of sunshine, beer and the odd pile of vomit – which contestants must ‘re-consume’, or face disqualification – and you’ve got Dorset’s answer to some of the weirder fields at the Glastonbury festival.
Competitive eating is always a curiously compelling spectacle, but this year’s world stinging nettle eating championships, hosted by the Bottle Inn at Marshwood, takes things to a whole new level.
Local legend has it that the contest was born over 20 years ago after two pub punters argued over whose nettles were the longest. The Urtica Dioica nettles are supplied by the local Hooper family who, apparently, carefully nurture them on a muckheap all year round. In a field next to the pub in the ravishing Marshwood Vale, around 500 people turn up in blazing sunshine to cheer as participants, who are not allowed to wear gloves, strip two-foot-long nettle stalks of leaves and gobble them up as quickly as possible inside the space of an hour. The winner is the person with the most clean stalks.
Competitors are a motley crew – the intrepid men and women sport face paint and novelty hats. There’s even a hen party, dressed as hula girls, wading their way through yards of the weeds.
Some of the nettle-eaters seem comparatively normal, like Jon Slack, a 34-year-old commodities buyer from Horn Ash, who sits next to us in the crowd before the competition begins. Why is he doing this? “I have no idea,” he says. “I must be an idiot. My goal is to eat 12 feet of nettles, but I draw the line at eating my own vomit.”
Jon Slack (centre) in action.
Alas, once the contest gets underway, Jon is the first person to surrender and leave the arena, amid rapturous applause. He did manage to eat 12 feet, but not keep it down. “I threw up,” he says ruefully. “It was not nice. They tasted like a very acidic version of raw spinach.” So would he do it again? “No. Never, ever, ever.”
Had enough yet?
This man was sick twice. He only 're-consumed' once.
Last year's winner (centre) defending his title
This competition is not for the faint-hearted – the nettles sting your fingers, arms, mouth and gums, and turn your teeth and tongue black. “It feels horrible,” says Mark Day, a father-of-two from Bridport.
Mark Day: grasping the nettle
Last year, both men and women winners ate the leaves from 48 feet of nettle stalks. This year’s nettle-eaters come tantalisingly close to breaking the championship record of 78 feet, set around eight years ago. Eventually the victors are declared as Sam the Fishmonger from Wellington, who ate 74 feet, and Laura from Weymouth, crowned top female nettle-muncher after chewing her way through 40 feet. Both winners went home with a trophy and a crate of Cornish Stinger – a beer made from stinging nettles, of course. (Tastes like Germolene, by the way).
Laura clasping her winner's trophy
As afternoon melts into evening there’s a strangely medieval feel in the air – maybe it’s the Uplyme Morris Men cracking their sticks and grabbing unwitting spectators to jig with them. Maybe it’s the ferret racing, the expressions of pain and disgust on nettle eaters’ faces, or perhaps it’s the audience chanting ‘eat it! Eat it!’ whenever nettle leaves are sicked up.
My verdict, after wincingly tasting a couple? Nettle leaves taste like runner beans, and make your mouth awfully dry. The best technique is to fold them over, touching only the non-stinging parts (top) of the leaf, then chew. Very carefully.
Think I’ll stick to eating them in salads.