The thing I love about this rain, this totally, completely prolific rain, is that it carpets the mother-in-law’s garden with a lush verdant cover of edible treasure – namely wild garlic. This year it’s been bountiful: tiny fountains of pungent foliage, with their paper-like white buds, have scattered themselves all over the vegetable patch, filling the air with a sweet tang.
Wild garlic – also known as ransoms, buckrams, wood garlic, and bear’s garlic or bear leek (for which it’s Latin name, Allium ursine, is given as brown bears just can’t get enough) – is a wild member of the chive family, and native to Europe and Asia. Historically, it has been used in various ways and I was most interested to discover its juice can be used as a moth repellent and disinfectant, and that in Switzerland, in the 19th century, cows were fed the stuff to produce garlic-flavoured butter, which was in favour at the time. Now, sadly, farmers view wild garlic as a pest because it adds flavour to meat and dairy, which is a great shame as its natural antiviral properties could be of great benefit to livestock.
Saying this, wild garlic offers many health-giving properties when used regularly, and may relieve a variety of digestive problems (colic, indigestion, wind, diarrhoea), chest conditions (asthma, bronchitis, emphysema), and circulatory diseases, and reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure. In fact, recent studies in Germany show wild garlic is a cut above the common garlic (Allium sativum) we all use in our kitchens, containing more magnesium, manganese and iron, and four and a half times more sulfur. Sulfur is known to balance blood cholesterol and prevent heart disease, strokes and other arteriosclerosis disorders. Like common garlic it has antiviral properties, however, unlike its poorer relation, which leaves an odour after it’s eaten because its sulfur is bound to protein, wild garlic’s sulfur compounds are free form… so snogging is definitely in order.
As well as its medicinal qualities, wild garlic is incredibly delicious and the whole plant is useful in the kitchen – from the white bulbs so enjoyed by bears and wild boar (chopped up like spring onion in stir fries and soups for us humans), to the green leaves (in salads and omelettes), and buds and flowers within (scattered through salads and on pasta). Which leads me to my recipe…
Pesto is a beloved way of using wild garlic by many a cook, and my recipe favours roasted hazelnuts (in their skins) to the more traditional pine nuts that one would use when making Italian pesto Genoese. In her wonderful book, ‘The Flavour Thesaurus‘, Niki Segnit points out that, “research has shown that the key hazelnut flavour compound increases tenfold when the nuts are roasted“, and here roasted hazelnuts harmoniously balance the mildly fiery wild garlic with their nutty, buttery sweetness.
Stirred into freshly cooked pasta, it offers the taste of a just rained-upon woodland in spring with all the financial perks that foraging offers. I mean, there’s nothing quite like digging through the undergrowth and picking your own food, especially if it means avoiding the supermarket and its expensive, plastic-wrapped flaccid bunches of basil.
Wild garlic is an excellent ingredient with which to start your foray into foraging as it colonises in woodlands and is not difficult to spot. Children love exploring and as wild garlic so often grows near bluebells, you’ll have your wee ones enraptured by the offerings of the great outdoors. You just have to make sure you’re picking the right plant (and not the deadly Lily of the Valley or similar, whose leaves are not unlike wild garlic), however, snapping a leaf and smelling it helps, as does a pocket guide like the excellent ‘Food for Free’ by the formidable Richard Mabey.
My children adore this pesto on spaghetti and it gives me great pleasure to see them scoff a bowl, with some steamed broccoli thrown in, what with the proliferation of snot we have seen in recent months.
This is an incredibly easy and delicious recipe, and can be made in advance as it stores well.
250g wild garlic leaves (I also pick the buds and flowers, which are delicious and look beautiful scattered through pasta)
125g roasted hazelnuts with skins on (walnuts also work beautifully or a mix of the two, and you can use peeled blanched nuts but you’ll get a subtler flavour)
50g parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino, grated
50ml extra virgin olive oil, plus extra
Sea salt and freshly milled black pepper to taste
Makes enough to fill a 250g jar and will store in the fridge for a week or so
Pick, wash and dry your wild garlic. Remove the primary veins and stalks, and keep the leaves. (Remove the primary veins and stalks by splitting apart the leaves – I do this to achieve a smooth pesto without any stringy bits.)
Put the wild garlic leaves into a mixer, along with the roasted hazelnuts and grated parmesan cheese.
Blend until you have a smooth but still slightly coarse paste and then, whilst blending, pour in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Use immediately, stirred into freshly cooked linguine, spaghetti or other pasta…
… and if there’s any left over store in the fridge for up to a week in a air-tight container covered with a splash more oil.