If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise head for the stream, where, among damp bracken and bluebells on the moist banks, you might be lucky enough to find dense carpets of wild garlic.
Look for starry white flowers that twinkle in the spring sunshine and inhale wild garlic has a strong aroma that is either delicious' or unbearable' depending on your opinion.
Where I grew up, in the Cotswolds, these prolific perennial plants are nicknamed Ramsons'. The Latin name is Allium Ursinum' from Ursus', meaning bear', because apparently brown bears (and wild boar, incidentally) love to eat wild garlic bulbs. That's why it's sometimes called Bear's garlic'.
To the untrained eye, the glossy, pointed leaves look worryingly like those of Lily of the Valley a poisonous plant but, if you're ever unsure, you have only to crush a leaf between your thumb and forefinger for a reassuringly onion-y smell.
Wild garlic lowers blood pressure and has antibacterial qualities, so it's a healthy choice. Its powerful health properties have long been known and celebrated; one of the vintage flower and plant books in my collection mentions an old West Country proverb: Eat Leekes in Lide [March], and Ramsons in May, And all the yeare after, Physititions [doctors] may play.'
Every spring, I pull on wellies and drag my team of reluctant volunteers' to fill baskets with these potent leaves, which are best picked in April and May before the flowers have faded. I know from bitter experience that later leaves can taste somewhat, well, bitter.
They wilt quickly but I freeze them in sealed bags, so I can chuck handfuls into risottos, quiche fillings and chowders all year round but it's wild garlic pesto, made with fresh leaves on the day of picking, that gets me really excited.
I use Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's excellent River Cottage recipe, which includes walnuts instead of pine nuts for a more textured, rustic result and packs a punch when stirred through pasta or smeared on crisp bruschetta. It couldn't be simpler; you just blitz together walnuts, wild garlic leaves, parmesan, lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper in a food processor, then fill a jar with the resulting bright green paste, sit back and wait for the compliments. Hugh playing it safe, no doubt says it only keeps for a few days but I find if you pour a good slug of olive oil on the top before sealing the jar it will keep for a few weeks in the fridge.
You can use up any leftover leaves by chopping them and sprinkling over buttered new potatoes, or by simply steaming them as a vegetable side dish, la spinach. Be warned though, like spinach, a whole bag of wild garlic leaves cooks down to a disappointingly small portion after just a few minutes, so always pick more than you think you will need.
Words by Ellie Tennant
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