Foraging and seasonal eating go hand-in-hand. In fact, foraging is the very definition of seasonal eating. You will not find wild blackberries in January (though the supermarkets will still sell you punnets of cultivated fruits). Birch sap has a season that is counted in weeks. Those spring flushes of St. George’s mushrooms are, it seems, gone in the blink of an eye. It is impossible not to be seasonal as a forager. The anticipation is key, those numb-fingered early spring days, checking the wild garlic patch for signs of growth. All this adds a dash of seasoning and savour to any meal made, once an ingredient is in full swing.
The challenge, then, is how to preserve your gatherings so you may enjoy their flavours and textures for longer. With the judicious application of sugar, or salt, or fat, or sometimes all three, humans have been preserving their foods for millennia. Kefir grains, kombucha SCOBYs (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), whey; a whole host of exotic-sounding ancient processes and micro-organisms have been, and are still, used the world over to preserve and transform.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) lends itself to fermenting. This fermentation is carried out by various Lactobacillus bacteria. It is a simple method, and transforms the plant into something almost entirely different; still pungent and garlicky, but with the slight fizz and umami associated with things like sauerkraut and kimchi. It preserves fantastically well, and you will be able to enjoy a hit of woodland garlic throughout much of the year this way. Fermented foods have also been shown to be beneficial to the gut microbiome, promoting gut-health which, in turn, can affect all manner of bodily and mental wellbeing.
(The world of fermented foods can be a bewildering one. I recommend Sandor Katz’s extraordinary book Wild Fermentation; it is an exhaustive guide to all things that bubble and fizz.)
This is a method rather than a recipe. You will only need two ingredients, though you can experiment with adding others, such as chillies, or perhaps other wild edibles.
For amounts here, I would suggest using a couple of large handfuls of wild garlic. It will reduce dramatically in volume, and this should give you enough for a jam jar full. If you decide you like it and want more, simply pick more wild garlic. As for the salt, you will need around 2% of the weight of the wild garlic.
Natural sea salt
Wash the wild garlic, and then dry in a salad spinner (or give it a good shake). Chop up the leaves, and place into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle over the salt, and then massage the whole lot together with your (clean) hands.
You’ll need to continue rubbing for a good ten minutes; the salt will start to draw the liquid out of the wild garlic until the mix is very wet. Now place a plate, smaller than the bowl, onto the wild garlic and weigh it down with something heavy – a jar filled with water or a few tins of beans will do the trick. All the plant matter needs to be submerged below the liquid; if you need to add more liquid, add a little mineral water (not tap water, the chlorine will inhibit the fermenting process). Leave to stand overnight.
Transfer everything from the bowl into a large jar, packing tightly, and then weigh down again; a freezer bag or a yoghurt pot filled with water will do the trick. Again, everything must be submerged – the fermentation is anaerobic and the presence of air will retard the process. Make sure there are no air pockets or bubbles. Put the lid on the jar, and then leave it for a couple of weeks somewhere cool and dark. As it ferments it will produce gasses, so you will want to ‘burp’ the jar from time to time.
You can taste your ferment at intervals over the next few weeks. It will start to bubble a little, and taste fizzy on the tongue. It may form a white scum or fuzz on the top – this is fine, just scrape it off. If you get anything blue or pink growing, or if it smells eggy or off, throw out the batch and start again; these moulds are toxic. When the ferment reaches a flavour you are happy with, transfer to a smaller jar, make sure the fermented leaves are submerged, seal with a lid, and pop in the fridge. It should last, unopened, for a good few months. Once opened, eat within a couple of weeks.
Serve as you would a pickle, with cold meats and cheeses. Add to soups and stews, stir fries, or risotto. The possibilities are endless.