If you pass by any bit of British woodland in the spring, chances are you will catch its scent on the wind. The first time this happens, it can be mildly disconcerting. It seems strange to smell garlic miles away from a kitchen.
How to forage for wild garlic
Foraging for wild garlic is easy and pretty much hazard-free. Avoid lily-of-the-valley, which looks similar but doesn’t smell of garlic and is toxic. Be wary of slightly bleary-eyed and hungry grizzlies!
Look for clusters of broad, pure green spearhead-shaped leaves growing in damp areas of deciduous woodland, often close to water – and often near bluebells. If it’s flowering, you’ll see pretty white petalled flower heads sitting on a single stem shooting up from connected leaves. If you’re at all unsure, rub a leaf between finger and thumb to release the garlicky aroma.
Allium ursinum, aka ramson, jack-by-hedge and ‘bear’s garlic’ (so-called because bears eat it after hibernating to get their digestive tract back into gear) is a perennial, as hardy and fast-growing as chives. First come the luscious and drooping leaves – which can form a dense canopy over the forest floor – then a burst of white flowers indicates the end of the growing season. The plant self-seeds and dies back.
How does it taste?
The taste of wild garlic leaves is very similar to the domestic bulb, but not quite as hot on the palate. That said, wild garlic has many (and some say more) of the same health-giving properties. If you have never tried it before, give it a whirl this spring.
It is edible at all stages of this growth but, unlike domestic garlic, it is the leaves, rather than the bulbs, that are prized. The bulbs are delicious, too, but very small and fiddly. The leaves and flowers make a great addition to salads or – as they have traditionally been used for centuries – as a garnish for cheese sandwiches. In fact, some Cornish Yarg cheeses are wrapped in the leaves as they mature, giving them a tangy, garlicky edge.
Tips for sourcing wild garlic
If you are trapped in the urban rat race then you can buy wild garlic online. Farmers’ market often sell it by the bag for a song.
It keeps well in the fridge and don’t be afraid of buying what seems like a lot, especially if you plan to cook with it. Like any green, it wilts and shrinks a lot in the heat. If you live near any Asian supermarkets, there is a leaf known as gau choi or Chinese leek, which tastes similar.
You can plant some in your garden, but be warned that wild garlic is as invasive as mint and should stay in a pot.
Wild garlic recipes
Once you get wild garlic into the kitchen, what should you do with it? Try a simple wild garlic pesto, add it to pasta with seasonal asparagus, put it in a spanakopita or cheesy pie, use it in a saag, or make soup.
Click here to see lots more wild garlic recipe ideas.