If you haven't been foraging before, knowing what to pick and when may seem daunting at first. This short series will introduce you to seasonal, easily accessible wild food and share tips on how to eat it.
The sun is getting warmer and spring is definitely here. The hedges and verges are beginning to burst into life with a rich variety of vegetation and it feels as though the world is waking up again after a long winter sleep.
With the new season comes an added incentive to get outside and blow away the cold and grey of the past few months. It’s a time of renewal, for looking forward and making plans. The cosy, introspective hibernation of winter gives way to a lighter, brighter energy, alive with possibility and rejuvenation.
Walking through a wood a couple of weeks ago, I spotted the first few shoots of wild garlic coming through. I resisted the temptation to pick some then but returned a few days ago and, as I’d hoped, there was enough to collect my first harvest of the season.
Wild garlic is an easy plant to forage. It’s not hard to identify and, when the flowers are out in April, it’ll often give itself away with its fragrant oniony scent. It has long, thin, vibrant green leaves which taper to a point at the end. If you rub your fingers along them, they should come away with an unmistakably tangy garlicky smell. It has little white flowers which grow in small spherical clusters and you’ll often notice a blanket of them covering the ground. You’ll find it in ancient woodland or along the side of shady riverbanks where it thrives in the damp, rich soil. It grows abundantly from the end of February until the end of May or even early June (although the leaves do become slightly more bitter later on in the season).
In the UK, wild garlic is also known as ransoms or wild cowleek and in French it’s called ail des ours, which literally translates as bear’s garlic, echoing its Latin name allium ursinum. This reflects the folk tale that bears ate it every spring to recover from a long hibernation, leading people to eat it in the belief that it could build up strength. During the 1918 pandemic, people in Ireland carried wild garlic in their pockets to ward off Spanish flu.
As always when foraging, do be careful and make sure you’ve correctly identified what you’re picking. Wild garlic has occasionally been confused with lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) both of which are poisonous so, if you’re in any doubt at all, go with someone who’s foraged for it before until you’re sure you know what you’re doing. Alternatively, pick a couple of leaves and take them home to identify.
When you’re foraging for anything, it’s important to abide by a few simple guidelines:
The author, scientist and member of the Native American Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer always cautions against foraging the first plant you see, in case it’s the only one there is. This is sound advice.
Similarly, it’s important to only take as much as you need and from where there is a plentiful supply to ensure that there’s enough left over for the local wildlife (a general rule of thumb is to take no more than a third of a patch).
Be careful not to damage or disturb habitats - many animals rely on plants for both food and shelter so always be respectful of their natural environment.
Never dig up roots or whole plants as this will cause permanent damage (and is illegal in the UK).
If you’re on private land, it’s a good idea to ask permission from the landowner first.
Three easy ways to eat your wild garlic:
Steamed and in salads
Use your wild garlic as an alternative to spinach and wilt some in a pan with some butter or olive oil (delicious with poached eggs). The raw leaves are a tasty addition to salads.
Wild garlic pesto
To make an alternative and straightforward dressing for pasta, blitz a large handful of raw wild garlic leaves with pinenuts, parmesan and olive oil in a food processor. Stir through cooked pasta and enjoy with extra parmesan on top.
Wild garlic butter
Finely chop some wild garlic leaves either by hand or in a food processor and then mix them to some softened butter, with a generous pinch of salt. Use it on homemade garlic bread, new potatoes or vegetables.
(If you’re not going to use it all straight away, you can roll it in a piece of baking parchment, cut into portions and freeze it to use another time.