Ah, the spring, the greenery, the herbs, the foraging.
Starting from some time in March, until May and even beginning of June, Leipzig is filled with the distinct aroma of wild garlic. (Maybe you call it ramsons, buckrams, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek or bear’s garlic, or just Bärlauch, if you’re German…)
It is perhaps the easiest and the most versatile herb to forage and, perhaps most importantly, it grows in heaps throughout Central Europe.
Kind of a chive, the name in many languages comes from the brown bear’s liking to it and the bear’s habit to dig up the ground to eat the bulbs. Brown bears have great taste.
How to find it and identify it?
Wild garlic is so common at least in Central Europe and the UK, you’ll unlikely struggle to find it.
Go to the nearest (semi) deciduous forest. Smell the air. The dead giveaway of wild garlic is the scent. You’ll smell it miles before you see it – as mentioned previously, the whole city of Leipzig smells of wild garlic for weeks.
Wild garlic tends to grow in low, bushy foliage, with quite long, thin stems and long, gently tapering leaves. The individual little “bushes” have each long and thin stems in the middle with one single flower bud growing on each stem.
However, the strong smell is such a clear way of identification that if ever in doubt, just rub a leaf between your fingers to break it and trust your nose – it will smell like a strong chive/spring onion and distinctly garlicky. There is no way to mistake wild garlic for anything else if your sense of smell has not been compromised!
How to forage it?
The best places to pick them are on slopes and hidden corners – they are less likely to have had animals or people mess around there. Always pick healthy leaves all the way from the ground, with long stems. This is useful too, if you want to store the wild garlic for a few days: just put them in a glass filled with water.
I collect mine usually in a basket, but you can also use paper bags, canvas bags or such. A plastic bag will keep the scent from sticking to any of your clothes or your bag, but the leaves should not be kept too long in plastic.
Also, don’t bother with the bulbs: they are edible but not really of any special use and it also means there will be no foliage next year.
When to forage it?
Wild garlic tends to peak in April, but you can probably start foraging it already in March and, in many places, until some time in May. You can monitor a little the state of the wild garlic from the flowers: while the beautiful blooming flowers are edible, the peak of wild garlic is before they blossom, when the flowers are still just tight buds.
As said, this is often in April, but is of course weather dependent. The garlic will still be delish, but the leaves might be a bit tougher and, right at the end of the season, they begin to have a slightly more bitter flavour.
How to prepare it before use?
Wild garlic is very straight-forward in this regard: cut bad bits off and wash thoroughly under cool/lukewarm water. Dry with a kitchen towel or let air dry.
How to use it?
Basically, your imagination is the limit. It is an exceptionally versatile herb with a million ways to use it in a variety of recipes – each tastier than the next.
Wild garlic is amazing in omelettes, basically any possible salad, as a side dish to any meat (simply fried quickly, pickled or worked in oil) and complements any sauce. You can also replace normal garlic in most recipes with it.
Four of my favourite ways to use it – which I’m sharing below – include two pasta dishes f.ex. for a quick lunch and two even more versatile products: butter and pesto are great ways to conserve the wild garlic for a little longer. Pesto will easily last a few weeks if not even a couple of months and the butter you can even freeze and consume all year round, if you make enough of it!
Wild garlic butter
- 500g butter (makes either two smaller “logs” or one big)
- Several bunches of wild garlic
- Sea salt or himalayan salt
- White pepper
- Nutmeg (optional)
- Take butter out to room temperature well in advance.
- Blitz the wild garlic leaves in a blender or a food processor, or chop very fine by hand.
- Add butter and mix together: either in the food processor or in a bowl. Add sea salt or himalayan salt to taste and a dash of white pepper and nutmeg. They give the wild garlic butter a deeper, richer taste.
- You can store the butter in many ways, I usually roll it in a piece of baking parchment, shaping it into a uniform “log” and twist the ends. You can also use other kinds of moulds though. Chill until hard. You can also make a bigger batch and freeze it, to have the taste of spring available all year round.
But of course, your butter needs a buddy. Luckily this butter is an absolute treat and will be bffs with bread, steaks, corncobs – you name it. A soulmate and a lifelong partner might be, however, home made soda bread, hot from the oven.
EXTRA HOT TIP: make your own butter and mix it with wild garlic, that stuff will have bread rolls queuing up to the door.
Wild garlic pesto
- Wild garlic, 1-2 large bunches
- Parsley (curly or leafy – both work just fine)
- 60g Toasted pine nuts
- 60g of Parmesan
- 1,5dl of olive oil
- Lemon juice (to taste)
- Black pepper
Pesto is a little hard to make without a food processor. So, place all the ingredients into a food processor apart from the olive oil and blitz for a minute or two. Then slowly pour in the olive oil until blended smooth. Use for pasta, spread on canapés, use for dips, mix in sauces and so on.
Lime-cashew-wild garlic pasta
This approximately feeds two. It’s a magnificently creamy and tangy pasta, with the sharpness of garlic. Spring in a bowl!
- 1,5dl of frozen peas
- 300g Pasta of your choice
- 1,5dl Cup of cashews (soaked if possible)
- 1-2 Bunches of wild garlic
- 1 Lime
- Olive oil
- Salt, freshly ground pepper
- Parmesan (optional)
1. Start by cooking pasta with the frozen peas in boiling water. Salt well!
2. While pasta and peas are cooking, put the cashews, olive oil, salt, pepper, lime juice and the wild garlic in a food processor and blend until smooth. Again, food processor/blender is ideal, though you can still make this without one. You just have to grind the cashews in a mortar. You could certainly also grind the garlic leaves in the mortar after chopping them roughly, too, but just chopping them fine would also do. The sauce won’t be as smooth but it will be delicious all the same!
3. When pasta and the peas are ready, drain them and put them back in the pot. Throw in the sauce from the food processor and mix up with a spoon or a spatula while on a low heat for a couple of minutes.
4. Drizzle some lime juice on top and finish off the dish with a sprinkle of fresh parmesan, if that’s your thing – though the creaminess of cashews is almost enough.
Merguez-wild garlic pasta
This pasta is like magic! The way the sauce is mixed to the pasta results in the thick bright green sauce forming a proper “coating” on the pasta and the fresh wild garlic will wonderfully complement the merguez.
- 2 Large teaspoons coriander seeds
- Dried red chilli, ideally smoked chilli, chopped fine-ish (optional!)
- Olive oil
- 4 Fresh spicy sausages (merguez or equivalent)
- 4 Bunches of wild garlic leaves
- 320g Fusilli, penne or farfalle
- 1dl Pasta cooking water
- 1 Lemon
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Parmesan cheese to taste, freshly grated, plus extra for serving
- Mash and mix coriander seeds and chillies in mortar.
- Heat olive oil in a pan on a medium heat. Cut open the sausage skins and squeeze the meat into the pan. Break it up into small pieces with a spatula and fry for a few minutes until the meat starts to colour.
- Add the ground seeds and chillies to the pan and cook for about 10 minutes on a medium heat until the meat is a dark golden brown and caramelised. Turn the heat down to low – don’t let the meat dry out!
- Get well salted water on to boil and put the in the pasta of your choice.
- Blend the wild garlic leaves in the food processor, until you have a deep green sauce, add a fair bit of olive oil, lemon zest and a pinch of salt and pepper. Once again – food processor is ideal, but chopping them fine and grinding them on a mortar would work, too.
- Take aside a little of the cooking water (1dl) or so, when the pasta is ready. Drain the pasta. Put the pasta back in the saucepan and add a little bit of the cooking water to loosen the sauce and lemon juice for tang. Stir the lovely green sauce to coat the pasta then divide between your bowls. Top with the delicious sausage meat and a nice covering of Parmesan cheese, and serve.
(and greetings from my tiny blog assistant)