I Went To the World Nettle-Eating Championship

People have been eating nettles in England since the Bronze Age. A recent archaeological dig discovered a bowl of nettle stew that dated back over 3,000 years. It’s fair to say that Gastronomy has come a long way during that time, and yet while nettles are no longer the staples they once were, when boiled down and turned to soup, they remain a fairly common offering in restaurants. 

The idea of eating raw, untreated stinging nettles is far less appealing. That doesn’t stop an annual gathering of nettle enthusiasts, however, who gather in Dorset, in southwest England, to see who can eat the most stinging nettles of all. Men and women are given 30 minutes to see can eat the furthest distance in stinging nettle stems in one of the world’s weirdest, most painful eating contests. 

Hosted by Dorset Nectar Ciders, a farm, orchard and campsite, we went along on a sunny Saturday to see what it was all about.

Photography by Stuart Smillie

world nettle eating championships

Early last summer, Chris Ullman was driving his motorbike near Bridport, Dorset, when he saw a sign that intrigued him. Directing passing motorists towards a local cider farm, it was an advertisement for the 2022 World Nettle Eating Championships. 

Twelve months later, he stands, arms aloft, the Nettle Eating Champion of the World. His trophy is promptly filled with cider, which Ullman drinks, before lifting it skyward once more and emptying anything left across his head. After inhaling over 75 feet of stinging nettles in just half an hour, his teeth are blackened with nettle residue, and though his t-shirt is soiled by a combination of cider, water and sweat, you can still read ‘Prostate Cancer Research’.

world nettle eating championships
Chris Ullmann with fellow competitor Mike
world nettle eating championships

Ullman is one of a few dozen competitors who spent the last afternoon penned into a small wooden, stuffing their mouths with stinging nettles. By the time the clock ticks towards the 30-minute cut-off, others appear to be going much quicker than Ullman, who never looked as though he was setting the pace; others, however, have ground to a halt entirely – every bite they muster accompanied with a groan and a gag, and followed by lengthy sips of cider. 

Bethan Hodges, who only found out about the competition when she arrived to camp at the farm, won the title for Nettle Queen for 2023, consuming 60ft of nettles. The lack of pre-meditation meant that Hodges, unlike Ullman, was not able to sort out a charitable sponsor, but, speaking to the Bridport News, said she wanted to highlight the work of the Samaritans.

“I love trying random competitions like this,” Hodges said. “I never, ever expected to win”. It’s a sentiment shared by Ullman, who seemed more surprised by his victory than anyone, motivated by the £500 he approximately raised for prostate cancer research.

world nettle eating championships

This peculiar, uniquely-British event has only been hosted at the Dorset Nectar Ciders for the last two editions. Before then, it took place at a historic, 16th century pub called the Bottle Inn, also in the southwest-English county of Dorset. The Bottle Inn was forced to close after the Covid-19 pandemic, however, and the nettle-eating tradition needed a new, hopefully temporary, home. 

Should the Bottle Inn – which is a Grade II listed building in the village of Marshwood – be able to reopen, Dorset Nectar Ciders has already said it will happily return to the tradition to its original home. In the meantime, on a day like this, it’s hard to imagine a better replacement location for the event. There’s a live band playing and a pop-up bar offering six artisan ciders on tap, on top of the farm shop which is shifting ciders by the liter. Sausages and onions sizzle on an industrial-sized wok, and though the nettles are of course the main attraction, plenty of people seem to just be enjoying an afternoon out. 

The weather gods are looking down favorably, and the early-summer-sun is basking the farm in a mild eccentricity characteristic of the British countryside at this time of year. There’s a sort of giddy headlessness; pastimes such as eating stinging nettles suddenly make sense.

world nettle eating championships
Calm, methodical, calculated – the meticulous Chris Ullmann on his way to victory.
world nettle eating championships
The venue, Dorset Nectar Ciders.

Which is perhaps why I decide, when encouraged by a man named Mike with a nettle laurel on his head, to eat a stinging nettle myself. Mike is a year-round nettle eater who is the director of the London Fungus Network, and he kindly walks me through his technique. 

“Turn it over on its back,” he instructs. “The stinging parts are on the top, so you want to roll them up inside. Have you ever rolled a spliff?” Of course not, Mike. “Yep, there you go, just like a spliff. That’s the way. Nice and tight.”

He holds up his nettle cigarette and I hold up mine. 

“Now,” he continues, “fold it in half and stick it right at the back of your mouth. You need it on the molars. Yep. Then just grind it down and chew.” 

world nettle eating championships
Mike making headway

It tastes like spinach at first. Not quite as tasty, a little more earthy, but not wholly unpleasant. There’s no sting whatsoever other than a little sensation on my fingers, and I suddenly think it’s not too bad, this nettle lark. That is, until, I begin to digest it. Even the single leaf doesn’t sit all that well, and only after necking some more cider do I feel a bit better. How competitors managed to sustain half an hour is beyond me.

Eventually, the focus turns away from the nettles and toward the evening ahead. The music resumes and the crowd that has gathered in front of them jump and flail, rather than necessarily ‘dance’. Others sit on the grass, as the sun stretches long into the evening, while those who are staying the night set up campsites in the picturesque orchard that the competition backs onto.

Read More: How the Cold War dug the deepest hole in the world

It seems unlikely, though not impossible, that Britain’s nettle-eating traditions last another 3,000 years. Nonetheless, for now, this is the kind of event that seems increasingly rare. There’s no big commercial pull, no ticket sales; there’s no desire to expand or turn the competition into something any larger than it currently is. It’s just a bunch of happy folk standing on a farm, drinking cider and eating nettles, and it makes for a wonderful Saturday.

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