If I were in the habit of anthropomorphising plants, thanks to the foraging boom, wild garlic would be rocking a full beard, Tom Ford eyewear and propping up a bar in Shoreditch. Hipster with a nonchalant, lower case, h. Known also as ramsoms, buckrams and wood garlic, its Latin name, Allium ursinum, means bear’s garlic allegedly because of the brown bear’s fondness for rooting around in the earth to nibble the bulbs. Apparently also considered a delicacy by wild boar, it is most commonly found in woodlands, near bluebells and in damp, shady areas with slightly acidic soils. And it is there for the picking.
My first encounter with it occurred whilst briefly dating a Yorkshireman when I was in my late twenties. During one of my weekend visits to York, on a bright, spring sunshiny day he’d taken me for a romantic drive through the beautiful dales, across heather and sheep strewn moors to Whitby. After satisfying my inner Goth with a visit to the ruined Benedictine abbey made famous by Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, we’d eaten proper fish and chips cooked in beef dripping and wrapped in newspaper on the windy seafront, had an obligatory ice cream and then pottered back towards York. On the way back, remembering my fondness for Brideshead Revisited, he took me past Castle Howard (used as the setting for Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead’ in the 1981 Granada TV drama and also for the 2008 film remake). We parked on the verge in a pretty lane with a great view of the house in the distance and cracked open a cold drink. Whilst I perched on the car bonnet and gazed in awe at the architectural splendour, he went for a wander. Five minutes later he shouted and beckoned. As I ambled along the lane, all dappled sunlight and grasses blowing in the breeze, I took a deep sniff of the air. Tangy. Unmistakable. Garlic.
There, at his feet, on the side of the lane, next to a boggy stream, sheltered by a hawthorn hedge was an enormous patch of wild garlic. Some in flower, some just pushing through. He stood, smiling the self-satisfied smile of the hunter-gatherer and proceeded to educate me all about this woodland wonder food before running back to the car to get a carrier bag to stuff full with it.
Later that night he dazzled me with omelettes made with wild garlic and chives and added some wild garlic to a watercress salad. Delicate and so delicious that even Dracula would have been tantalised. This is where I should say, “Reader, I married him” but fortunately I didn’t. He showed his true colours the next night, when on a pub crawl with his friends around York, he charmingly pointed out to them, and me, every girl in one particular pub that he’d been to bed with. Suffice to say, he didn’t cook for me again!
I am fortunate to have wild garlic in my garden. In central London. I know! Transplanted from my parent’s edge-of-the-Fens garden into the shadiest corners of my little plot, it appears to thrive in the claggy London soil. It is currently pushing through beside my crocuses. For me, it is a true indicator that the shackles of winter have finally been thrown off and spring is here to rescue us. As its pungent scent wafts gently on a cool spring breeze, my mind turns to pesto. It makes by far my favourite pesto – slightly fiery with a tangy sweetness. The leaves are best when small and tender. Once the plant begins to flower (the pretty white flowers are very edible and delicious in salads) the leaves become less tender and their flavour a little brash for my taste. In a bag the leaves will last for a week in the fridge.
Wild Garlic Pesto
Approximately 100g of wild garlic leaves.
150-200ml of olive oil (I use half normal, half extra virgin)
50g pine nuts or walnuts.
50g of parmesan cheese.
Salt and pepper.
You can also add cloves of garlic if you prefer a punchier taste but I would advise testing before adding.
I blanch the leaves in boiling water for ten seconds, then cool and dry them – but you can, and many people do, use them raw. After that I whizz them and the other ingredients (except the oil) in a food processor/blender until smooth. Then I gradually add the oil until I get the consistency I desire. I prefer mine to be more paste than sauce. Takes five minutes. If that. Hey presto, pesto!
Put into sterilised jars and seal. It should keep in the fridge for about a month or you can pour into ice-cube trays and freeze, so you can enjoy the flavour of spring throughout the year.
Sarah Raven also has a recipe which I’m going to try this weekend, for Wild garlic and ricotta al forno – like a pastry-less quiche – perfect for people like me who try to avoid wheat/gluten.
For 4-6 people.
Pesto (as above)
Knob of butter.
100g parmesan cheese
500g fresh ricotta
120ml double cream
Salt and pepper
100g pine nuts, dry-fried or toasted (optional)
12 black olives, stoned and chopped (optional)
First make the pesto.
Preheat the oven to 190C/gas mark 5. Grease a 30cm spring-form cake tin with a knob of soft butter, then coat with a little grated parmesan.
Put the two tablespoons of pesto into a food processor with the ricotta cheese and cream. Blend until bright green and, with the machine running, add the eggs one by one. Transfer to a large bowl, and season the mixture with salt and pepper. Add the pine nuts (if using) and finally fold in the rest of the grated parmesan.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and spread the olives (if using) over the top. Bake for 20 minutes. It should rise slightly and have a brown crust with a soft centre. Serve immediately with a green salad.
Go on, go and put your wellies on. But beware of the bears…