There are several key moments in the foraging year. The point in the spring when the birch sap is rising, to be tapped from the tree and made into wine or syrup. That warm day, towards the tail end of midsummer, when the first fat, ripe blackberry is popped in the mouth, just sweet enough. A first sighting of the tan dome of a penny bun on the woodland floor. These are not dates that can be marked in a calendar, nature being what she is; capricious and prone to tantrums. It is by careful observation of the changing seasons, and the reading of clues, that you can predict the advent of wild ingredients.
Today, in the forest nearby, the first slim shards of wild garlic are piercing the leaf litter. In a few short weeks they will have risen in a great green tide that covers the forest floor. From the river that cuts through the valley, to the point where the oak gives way to pine, the aroma of garlic will hang in the air, savoury and sweet.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is one of those happy wild foods; its flavour and versatility is matched by its abundance. It is possible to fill a couple of bags with its pungent leaves and not make a dent, although as its popularity grows it still wise to be sensible. You will find it along hedgerows, in open woodland, in parks; almost anywhere that is damp and shady. When I lived in Bristol there was a large overgrown cemetery that was full of the stuff, as were the woods along the Avon Gorge. (It is so abundant I do not mind giving away my spots.) It can be found from February through until June, although earlier is better.
All parts are edible. The early shoots have the strongest flavour, which is similar to garlic mixed with spring onion. As the leaves get bigger and broader, they become tougher and more fibrous, though are still worth using. The flowers, when unopened, are an excellent snack to be munched as you walk. When they open they make a beautiful garnish for salads. The seeds are crunchy and pungent; another wayside nibble. The bulbs are not really worth it, being small and a bit slimy, and rather mild in flavour. It is also against the law to uproot any plant.
Wild garlic is fairly easy to identify. It has broad, long, elliptical leaves that are pointed at the tip. The leaves are smooth-edged and have visible veins, and give the smell of garlic when rubbed between the fingers. The flowers are white, growing in umbels on long stalks, and have six petals. When in bloom the forest floor can look like the night sky in miniature.
It is possible to confuse wild garlic with the young leaves of lords and ladies, though these are rough-edged and, when unfurled, have rounded backward-pointing lobes. Young shoots are similar to the shoots of snowdrops and daffodils. Lily-of-the-valley is also quite similar, though the leaves grow in pairs where wild garlic is individual. All of these are toxic, lily-of-the-valley seriously so. The garlic aroma, or lack thereof, is the giveaway, though do be careful as all these plants can grow amidst the wild garlic.
The chemicals that give wild garlic its flavour are easily destroyed by cooking, so it is best to use the leaves raw or add them to a dish right at the last minute. It is invigorating to stir chopped wild garlic into a hot soup; a smelly steam bath.
As an ingredient, wild garlic is extremely versatile. Soups, stews, dressings, pickles, sauces, salads, ferments; brace yourselves for more recipes over the coming weeks. One of the best uses, to my mind, is pesto.
Traditionally a pesto is made by pounding ingredients together with a large pestle and mortar, though feel free to use a food processor (I do).
This is pretty much down to personal taste, though I give amounts here as a guide. The nuts used are interchangeable; you can use hazelnuts or pine nuts if you wish. I use walnuts as we have a friend who has a walnut tree and gifts us a box every year.
1 large bunch of wild garlic leaves, well washed and roughly chopped
200g parmesan, grated
1 tbsp lemon juice
good olive oil
Lightly toast the walnuts in a pan until just starting to go a little darker. Tip into a food processor and blitz a little. Add the wild garlic, lemon juice, and parmesan, and pulse to mix. Set the processor on a low setting, and trickle in the olive oil until you reach a consistency you are happy with – I like a fairly coarse pesto. Stir in some salt to taste.
You can play around with the amounts of nuts and cheese here, as well as the lemon juice, depending on your personal preferences.
The pesto will store in a clean jar in the fridge for up to a week. If you want to keep it longer, it freezes well. Stir some pesto through cooked pasta at the last minute for a simple tasty supper. Use a few dollops on a pizza. Or just sit and stare out the window, dredging good bread through the pesto and chewing happily.