In the UK, the wild garlic (allium ursinum) or ‘Ramsons’ season is a short one: these pungent plants are usually ready for picking around the beginning of April until the end of May or early June, though it is normally at its most prolific from April until the beginning of May. Wild garlic plants have pretty white blooms and coat the shady floors of woods at springtime. Although it may also be found in scrub and hedgerows, it prefers the damper conditions of woodland and chalk soils.
Other names for wild garlic include ‘buckram’, ‘broad-leafed garlic’, ‘gypsy’s onions’, ‘wood garlic’, ‘bear leek’ and ‘stinking Jenny’. Its leaves are long, oval and pointed with untoothed edges which grow from the base of the plant and the bulb. They are sometimes confused with lily of the valley when not in flower but you will know it is wild garlic from its strong garlicky smell if you crush some of the leaves in your hand, and lily of the valley flowers are bell-shaped. Lily of the valley is poisonous so make sure you know what you are picking if you are out foraging. The flowers of the wild garlic are small and white with six petals on a thin stalk and around 25 flowers make up each rounded flower cluster on a single, leafless stalk.
Wild garlic reproduces through bulbs, bulbils and occasionally from seeds which are 2-3mm long and are black and quite flat on one side. They scatter when the parts of the plant above the ground die down. It is important not to over-forage wild garlic, which would badly affect regrowth and availability in the following year. Unfortunately, as this plant has become a highly-prized gourmet ingredient this practice is becoming a major problem in certain areas of its habitat. The whole point of foraging is to take only what you need with a respect for nature and mindfulness of its bounty, and not with ruthlessness or for large-scale material gain.
It is the leaves of the wild garlic that are eaten, with the bulbs left intact in the ground, and the taste is quite mild, similar to that of chives. It is best picked before the flowers appear, but in any case it is best to try and avoid picking stalks that bear flowers to ensure the survival of the plant in following years.
Wild garlic leaves can be eaten raw or lightly cooked; they are very versatile and can be used in a wide variety of recipes. Make sure you wash and drain them thoroughly. Some recipes might also ask you to blanch the leaves for a few minutes in boiling water. Wild garlic can be stirred into risottos or omelettes, added to lasagnes and bakes, soups and stews or used in sauces such as pesto or gremolata, or in salads and dressings. In a soup or stew they are best added at the last moment to wilt down, rather like watercress or spinach.
I particularly enjoy making wild garlic pesto which I use in salads or to smooth over my homemade pizza base before adding toppings. I also enjoy the taste of wild garlic soup so I am sharing with you one of my recipes which is prepared in a slow cooker. If you like, use coconut milk instead of double cream to finish to keep it vegan. Please see the cook’s notes at the end of the recipe for other variations.
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into small chunks
1 clove of garlic, chopped finely
Large handful of foraged wild garlic leaves (or a small packet), larger stalks removed
1 onion, roughly chopped
500 ml vegetable stock (or enough to cover)
Double cream or coconut milk to finish
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- In the crock of a small slow cooker place all the ingredients except for the wild garlic leaves and add enough cold vegetable stock to cover approx 2.5 cm above the vegetables. The stock can be made with water and a teaspoon of Swiss Bouillon granules or you can use reserved water from steamed vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Place the lid on the crock and cook on high for 1 hour, then cook on low for a further 1-1.5 hours or until vegetables are tender. If you prefer to use hot stock, please remember to switch on your slow cooker to high to heat up 30 minutes before you add ingredients and hot liquid as the crock is heat sensitive and may crack.
- Meanwhile prepare the wild garlic leaves, removing any flowers and larger, thicker stalks, place in a colander and rinse thoroughly in cold running water, leave to drain.
- When the vegetables are tender add the wild garlic leaves to wilt down for 30 seconds or so with the lid on and switch off the slow cooker, leave the soup to cool down a little.
- Blend soup thoroughly until smooth with a stick blender, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Stir through a swirl of double cream or coconut milk, check and correct seasoning again and gently reheat on the low setting. Serve with a few garlic croutons and a chunk of good bread.
If you prefer your soup to have a milder flavour, replace the onion with a small finely sliced leek.
Try adding some finely chopped chives or parsley to the blended soup.
A stick of lemongrass cooked with the vegetables might add an Asian twist if you are finishing the soup with coconut milk. Remember to remove the lemon grass before blending.
Meat eaters might like to garnish the soup with a scattering of pan fried bacon bits or some crispy pancetta.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, just use a saucepan as usual. Cook the vegetables in the stock until tender. Once tender, remove from the heat and quickly add the wild garlic leaves and allow to wilt down in the residual heat. When the soup mixture has cooled slightly blitz with a stick blender, adjust seasoning, add cream or coconut milk, adjust seasoning again if necessary and gently reheat before serving with garnishes as you like.
If you have neither cream nor coconut milk, just add a splash of milk before reheating or simply reheat with its bright green colour, ladle into a warm bowl and perhaps add a dollop of natural yoghurt or creme fraiche.