Spring, undoubtedly, is my favourite time of year. After a long, cold, wet winter of hunkering down by the fire, these first days of warm feel like emerging from a cave. Early flowers are popping open, an embrace for the bees. Birch sap rises, fruit trees are pushing out sticky buds, and the whole world swells like a balloon that will soon explode in a cacophony of green and birdsong and life.
Whilst there is much to be foraged in winter, spring really feels like the first course of the coming feast. Wild garlic carpets forest floors, dandelions scatter tiny suns in the fields, St George’s Mushrooms are beginning to appear in those mystical fairy-rings. The range of flavours available grows as the sun strengthens. One of best to be found is garlic mustard.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is also known as Jack-in-the-hedge, sauce-alone, penny hedge, and poor man’s mustard, amongst other names. The number of folk names for the plant suggests it has been known and used as a foodstuff for centuries; indeed evidence of its use has been dated back as far as c. 4000 BCE.
It is a biennial, meaning it flowers and fruits every two years. In early spring, its bright green leaves are kidney shaped with indented margins, growing in large patches along hedgerows and field edges. At this time of year it could be confused with lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), but the leaves of this plant are far more glossy, and easy to differentiate once you know what you’re looking for. As the season progresses, the plant becomes taller, up to a metre or so, and the leaves become pointed and heart shaped. They are also hairless. When it flowers, it produces four-petalled, tiny, white flowers giving way to long dark green seed pods. This part of its cycle gives away its family tree; another member of the brassica group.
As its name suggests, the flavour is similar to garlic with a twist of mustard. It can be bitter, though for me this is a good thing; I like a thwack of bitterness. Young leaves, before the plant flowers, are less bitter, and added to a mixed salad bring pungency and intrigue to blander bowl-fellows. They also make an excellent pesto ingredient, as well as a satisfying wayside nibble (watch for bugs – caterpillars and beetles are common amongst the leaves). The flowers can be used as a garnish, and the young seed pods add pleasing texture to a dish. The leaves make a good sauce to accompany lamb, or as an ingredient in a wild salsa verde along with common sorrel and wild garlic. With its savoury garlic and mustard notes, it goes well with fish.
Garlic Mustard Fishcakes.
You can use any fish here; a fishcake after all is a way of using up leftovers of fish or mashed potato. I like to use fresh white fish rather than smoked, as the pungency of the garlic mustard needs to come through, and can be masked by stronger flavours. Coley is a favourite, or dab. Something sustainably fished is a must.
Ingredients Serves 4
500g floury potatoes (such as maris piper), peeled and roughly diced
300g white fish fillets
1 large handful garlic mustard leaves, washed
2 tbsp capers
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 eggs, beaten
50g plain flour
knob of butter
salt and pepper
Cook the potatoes at a simmer in salted water until just tender. Drain, and allow to steam dry.
Put the fish in a pan, just cover with cold water, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for around 3 minutes, until soft and flaking.
In a large mixing bowl, mash the potato. Flake in the fish. Finely chop the garlic mustard leaves, and add to the bowl. Add the fish sauce, a pinch of salt, and a good grind of black pepper. Mix well, taste, and adjust seasoning if needed. Add 1 of the beaten eggs, gradually, mixing until you have achieved a more velvety mix (but not too wet).
Tip the flour onto a clean work top. With your hands, divide the mixture into 8 equal parts. Form each into a ball, and then pop into the flour, turning and patting down to form flat cakes. Dip each cake in the rest of the beaten egg, coating well, then coat with breadcrumbs.
In a frying pan, heat the butter and a little oil until foaming a little, and then cook the fishcakes (in batches if necessary, don’t crowd the pan) for 3 or 4 minutes each side until crisp-coated and golden.
Serve, 2 cakes per person, with a wedge of lemon and a seasonal vegetable or salad.