Friday, March 23, 2012

Ramson fest

Oh my, how time flies! Honestly, it doesn't feel like nearly a year since I was last on here posting my foraging musings. How did it happen that we're well into March already?! Thankfully I have continued in the past year to bimble along in the countryside, woodland, mountain and seashore, I have continued to get a regular wild food fix along the way, I guess I just haven't had time to write about it. I feel genuine regret for that and I wholeheartedly apologise. Anyway, I'm back now so let's get started again... 

Ok so, to anybody that has spent time in damp dappled woodland or walked along shady country roads, wild garlic, or ramsons as they're otherwise known, will be a familiar plant and a very good one to start us on our foraging journey again. You will often smell wild garlic before you see it, indeed as the season progresses the fragrance can become less delicate and distinctly overpowering. If you happen upon wild garlic, you generally won't find one plant situated in splendid isolation, you'll find carpets of the stuff. Long elegant deep green leaves overwhelm the woodland floor or roadside bank and turn the previous wintry bareness into something lush and vibrant.

A carpet of fragrant garlic

This sight fills me with excitement at the promise of all the wild food that will gradually appear during the coming year. The pleasant familiarity of this plant's smell and taste always guides me with gentleness back to wild food after a winter of scarcity. It is a plant that is easy on the eye, the palate and one that takes very little time to pick or imagination to use. I look forward to its arrival in March very much.

As far as identification goes, the smell of garlic from the crushed leaves is unmistakable. Beyond that look for broad elliptical leaves that taper to a point all growing separately from the bulb beneath the ground. The soft leaves will also show parallel leaf veins. The pretty six petal white flowers burst from long stems like an exploding firework. By far the best way to harvest your garlic is to use scissors because as well as it being all too easy to uproot the plant by pulling on the leaves, you don't really want to bring half of the woodland floor home with you in your foraging basket. Once picked, the leaves don't keep particularly well and are best used promptly. Do be careful not to mistake wild garlic for the much more slender bluebell or lily of the valley, both of which are poisonous. Also to be avoided is Lords and Ladies which is another common plant that enjoys the very same habitats as wild garlic and is usually to be found growing amongst it. Be sure of your identification and careful in your harvesting and you'll be fine with this addition to your wild larder.

The pretty star shaped flowers with the lush lanceolate leaves behind

Every single part of this plant can be used. The fresh leaves can be used as a flavouring in soups, stews, oil, butter, sauces or eaten raw in salads. The flower buds and open flowers make a pretty garnish to most savoury dishes or salads. Even the bulbs can be used in a similar way to cultivated garlic or pickled to use at a later date (remember though that uprooting any plant will always require the express permission of the landowner.) 

Inspired by Robin Harford of, I always make sure to save the taste of wild garlic for months to come by making a big batch of garlic oil that I use as a base for pesto amongst other things. I take equal quantities of leaves and light olive oil (usually 500g and 500ml) and a good pinch of salt and blitz the lot together in a food processor. Poured into sterilised containers with an extra glug of oil over the top this puree will keep in the fridge for months or, if poured into an icecube tray it can be frozen and popped out whenever that garlicky punch is needed.

Wild garlic leaves preserved in oil

There are any number of recipes that could utilise the flavour of this plant: bread, chicken kiev, risotto, dolmades, pasta... Wherever you see scallion or garlic in a recipe perhaps now you could open that jar of wild garlic oil and bring the satisfying taste of a wild Spring to your dinner plate.