One of the earliest wild greens to poke through the soil in Spring is wild garlic. Their long, shiny and glossy oval leaves are fairly straightforward to identify and are one of the most abundant ingredients you can find at this time of the year.
Wild garlic has played an important role on the renaissance of wild foods in recent years, being much appreciated by foragers and frequently featured on top restaurant menus.
Description and species
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is also known as ramson or bear’s garlic, in reference to the brown bear fondness for its bulbs after their hibernation period. It’s a wild relative of chives native to temperate regions of Europe and Asia.
Wild garlic is a herbaceous perennial with bright glossy and broadly lance-shaped leaves that tends to form long carpets, displaying beautiful white star shaped flowers held in a round cluster. It is most recognisable by its distinctive garlicky smell. However, the flavour is rather mild in comparison to the ‘real deal’.
A word of caution is necessary, as there are similarities to other plants which are poisonous. Lilly of the valley (Convallaria majalis) has a considerable resemblance to the novice forager and grows in the same habitat, as autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) and lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), which could be mistaken when young. However, wild garlic is the only one that smells garlicky when crushed.
Notes on edibility
It is the leaves that are mainly collected, but all parts of the plant are edible, including flowers and bulbs. However, these last are not as good as the bulbs of cultivated garlic in flavour, plus they are very tiny and don’t store very well unless pickled.
The smell is very pungent in the open, but the flavour is not as garlicky as the cultivated varieties and has some different notes. Wild garlic has similar properties to the conventional garlic bulbs: antioxidant, antibacterial and antiseptic.
Foraging in season
Wild garlic is a native plant to the UK and common throughout the British Isles, except further north Scotland and the Channel Islands. It grows from March until June, when it bursts into bloom with gorgeous star-shaped white flowers.
The plant carpets woodland floors and riverbanks with its bright green colour. It is not particularly happy in an urban environment, but I have seen them growing very often along Birmingham’s canal side.
It is one of the most abundant wild foods, as they usually grow in large colonies in shaded and damp wood areas along with bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), indicating ancient woodland.
Pick wild garlic leaves simply by pulling off individual leaves as needed and choose young and fresh ones for best flavour, as they start to wither after the appearance of the flowers, becoming rather tough and bitter. However flowers and buds are worth picking.
Wild garlic is easily identifiable by its distinctive smell and its long pointed leaves. However, it grows along other poisonous bulbs, as Lilly of the valley (Convallaria majalis) or autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) and attention must be taken to avoid mixing unwanted leaves on the basket! Fortunately, they don’t have garlicky smell and are easy to tell apart.
Storage and processing
Wash the leaves with water and vinegar before using, as there are always one or two leaves with bird poo and snail trails. Some recipes also call for blanching the leaves for a few minutes in boiling water.
Fresh leaves will keep for at least 3 days in the fridge, but eventually they will wilt sooner than later. It is possible to preserve their flavour by freezing ice cubes made of chopped wild garlic and butter, to then use in several recipes when needed.
Leaves, bulbs and flower buds can be preserved nicely by lacto-fermentation using salt and water to enjoy the rest of the year, but be advised: it will stink. Alternatively, they can also be pickled in vinegar.
A less stinky but less flavoursome way to preserve leaves is dehydrating and crumbling them to use as a dried herb.
Culinary uses and recipes
Wild garlic has a somehow misleading name, as it is not a real replacement for garlic despite its powerful scent. The flavour doesn’t survive cooking for long and quickly becomes gentle, somewhere in between spinach and garlic.
Therefore, raw leaves will impart a strong garlicky flavour chopped into potato salads or used as herb, blending with mayonnaise, butter or cream cheese as you would do with chives. Leaves can be layered into a sandwich looking for a more substantial filling.
Wild garlic blends itself to perfection with cheese and a variety of Cornish Yarg has a rind coated in leaves. It is also used for preparing herbed cheese, a Van speciality in Turkey. Goat cheese is the best match to make ‘wild garlic roulade’.
Probably the most popular recipe is ‘wild garlic pesto’, using the leaves to substitute basil. The sauce can be used as stuffing in several recipes: ravioli, veggie lasagne, ‘chicken kievs’…
It generally needs to be added to cooked dishes near the end, as wild garlic quickly develops a rather rank or burnt taste. Add to soups, risottos, omelettes, stews, stir fries and accompany meat and fish in sauces.
Broad leaves are perfectly suitable for wrapping and layering, making a superb ‘wild dolmades’ substituting vine leaves by wild garlic ones and stuffing them with rice and pork. The outside will be very crispy and the result is surprisingly good. Oil that give ramsons their garlicky flavour are highly volatile and quickly lost after cooking.
Full ramson clumps can also be fried for a minute in plenty of oil to be dipped in a rich lemony sauce and flowers make a beautiful garnish for salads with a powerful allium kick. There is no reason you cannot butter them as well!