This year spring delivered me, as well as an abundant garden and hedgerow, a mild obsession with wild garlic and other free leafy greens. Maybe it’s something to do with being super seasonal and never knowing when or where it will pop up, or it could be the sheer romance of picking it myself for the first time, but wild garlic has definitely made a big impression this time round. Whatever has got me hooked, it’s got to have something to do with its long silky leaves, its pungent oniony smell, sweet, strong taste and, the best bit as far as I’m concerned, the white, snowdrop-like flowers (my love for edible flowers not going anywhere, whatever the season).
Battle: the scene of the great wild garlic robbery
I found my first stash of wild garlic near my sister’s in Battle, East Sussex. I say, stash, as I had to grab as much as I could because it was just a random, fleeting visit to the town before driving back to London and, it was growing just beyond a no-access sign (see photographic evidence, in case anyone sees fit to dob me in). Please note, I did not trample down the sign in my haste, that must have been the wild-garlic enthusiast before me. Very happy with my perfect find, packed full of flowers, I took the wild garlic back with me, stinking out the car in the process and planning all the things I would do so not to waste the opportunity. Ironically, and as if a gift from the foraging gods rewarding me for my thriftiness, a week later I went for a walk in a park right at the top of my road I had never been in (we recently moved; okay, nearly a year ago, but I have been neglecting my parklife) and there it was growing away nicely: my own supply of wild garlic, fingers crossed, until the end of June.
Saying that, although the official season is from late March to late June, I have found that after the flowers start to die on the plant, its pungency goes. It’s still a lovely ingredient, just a little softer. Storage-wise, wild garlic should be kept in the fridge on a plate, covered in damp kitchen paper, after it is picked, where it will keep fresh for about a week after picking. I have kept some for up to two weeks but it does lose its strong taste and smell the longer it waits to be used (although you’ll be smelling alliums in your fridge until the shortest day).
I have used wild garlic quite a few times before over the years, but always ordered it in, in a panic from suppliers, receiving it in pots, growing, or picked in a bag from fresh produce suppliers, who, quite rightly, are making a bit of money from chefs and high-end green grocers from being ready at the right time and place to get our prized wild garlic. An allium (basically means member of the garlic family, but in Latin) and a wild relative of chives, wild garlic doesn’t really have much else to do with actual garlic bulbs, apart from the garlic smell that precedes it wherever it grows, and that it’s great for cooking. It’s also a good idea for your body; blood purifying and said to lower cholesterol, it’s also got antibiotic, antiseptic and antibacterial properties. And like a lot of things in life, it’s better when it’s free.
When you find a plant, just pick or cut a couple leaves and flowers from the top of the root, leaving most of the plants to continue growing for others. A bit like foraging for wild mushrooms, wild garlic has its confusing evil twin to be careful of – lily of the valley. The smell is the real indicator – the smell of chives/garlic is unmistakable with wild garlic. But, if in doubt, just leave it there.
Cooking with wild garlic
But I was absolutely sure of my little garlicky find and, first, I set about making what everyone else is making on Instagram: wild garlic pesto (well, I didn’t want to be left out). And then it changed. Mostly because I couldn’t face getting everything out of the cupboard to find the pine nuts and, as always, I had already put my poached egg on to cook in a kind of daredevil egg timer self-sabotage. So I ended up with a hot wild garlic vinaigrette, which, as well as harmonising perfectly with my egg and first-season asparagus on toast, was a triumph with new salad potatoes and seared tuna. You just whizz up a bunch (probably 12 or so large leaves) of wild garlic, sea salt and pepper, 2 tbsp extra virgin olive or rapeseed oil, 1/2 tbsp white wine vinegar, a squeeze (1 tsp) of lemon juice, 2 tsp honey and 1 tbsp of hot water from whatever vegetable you are boiling) in a food processor or with a hand blender. Then I thought of wild garlic’s similarity with kale – green, strong tasting, robust – and dowsed in sunflower oil (okay, 1 tbsp for a bunch of wild garlic), then baked it on a flat baking tray for 5 minutes in a preheated oven at 160°C/140°C fan/gas 3. My Crispy wild garlic was crisp and tangy, and went very well sprinkled over salad.
Next, for something a little more complicated. This Goat’s cheese wild garlic parcel with rhubarb salsa, pictured right, really brings out the mellow rather than the pungent aspects of the wild garlic leaves and gets zinged up by a simple forced rhubarb salsa, which is basically just rhubarb sliced into thin strips and given the sweet and sour treatment that makes anything taste good (salt, honey and lemon). I used a British rinded goat’s cheese, Innes Button (bought from Good Taste Food and Drink in Crystal Palace), which turns gooey in the oven, and stands up in taste to the sometimes boisterous wild garlic tones.
Next up was Wild garlic potted crab with Nettle bread. There’s no fishmonger in Crystal Palace. Neither is there a butcher for that matter. I hear that there used to be a shop combining the two but no-one went there, so now it is a very good restaurant a little misleadingly called the Crystal Palace Market. Anyway, it’s a good job Iceland has upped its game in recent years (mostly via the appointment of Heston-trained development chef Neil Nugent, who took Asda up a peg or two in culinary estimations previously), and not only is it stocking crab meat (100g for £3.50) caught by contracted fisherman in the Indies, adhering to Iceland’s sustainability standards and the MSC, but it also has red Argentinian shrimp wild caught in the South West Atlantic Ocean and tuna steaks (you really need two portions to be impressed/full, but it is good at four – 432g altogether – for £4.50), also caught by contracted fisherman in the Indian Ocean (and both used with my Hot wild garlic vinaigrette). Whilst I desperately miss having a local fishmonger, I was pleased to find out that Iceland works on its sustainability policy constantly and that all of its fish and seafood range is frozen at source and therefore arguably better than fresh.
Green alkanet and other weeds…
Now, I don’t want to upset anyone; let’s move on from my traumatic fishmonger-free existence and go back to the hedgerows and parks, or more fittingly in this instance, my overgrown garden, and my favourite new ingredient (mostly because it’s pretty and, again, free): green alkanet flowers.
These little bright blue flowers are members of the forget-me-not family. They are also related to borage, but are very much smaller and more common (if South East London and Worcester are anything to go by). The stalks and leaves are pretty much inedible raw and, actually slightly painful to touch in a prickly way, so some rubber gloves could be useful when picking. They are a food stylist or food instagramer’s dream as they really make the food pop on the plate.
The plants flower from April to June, and it could be worth putting a plastic bag over them, then cutting at the root to pick, as the small flowers fall off quite easily and you could lose half of them in the picking process. Once picked, carefully remove the flowers with your fingertips. I have been discarding everything else (well, popping it back on the garden) but some sources say the roots, stems and leaves can be made into juice or cooked. Said to have anti-bacterial and astringent qualities, much like wild garlic, green alkanet has been very useful in the past. And its roots have even been used for the dye in lipsticks and such like – rivalling henna.
Another abundant edible plant that we have lost our connection with and is also everywhere in our unruly garden, quite naturally, is the stinging nettle. Hopefully, the clue’s in the title, but this is one you’ll definitely need gloves for. Again, nettles are so good for you – vitamin D and K, plus a decent amount of iron is on this one’s résumé – and we really should be getting more of this plentiful and sustainable food in our diet. They also have a strong almost brassica taste, a bit like a less fibrous kale, and they are best eaten in spring when the plants are young or the new shoots at the top of old plants. To use, they should be blanched first in boiling water for 15 mins, then drained and rinsed to get rid of the sting. Then you have your ingredient ready to use. Here’s my Nettle bread recipe – it goes well with fish, particularly the Wild garlic potted crab.
Next in my sights is seaweed and elderflower, but, you’ll be pleased to know, probably not together. Never say never though.