A guide to finding and making the most of this highly seasonal allium
With the popularity of foraged food increasing in recent years, wild garlic has enjoyed a real boom. “Foraged foods in general are now very popular and wild garlic in particular has really taken off. Two of the most popular products we stock are our wild garlic pesto and wild garlic mustard,” says Noel Fitzjohn of Fitz Fine Foods. “While the wild plant does taste of garlic, there is a difference from the bulb garlic we are more used to so using this adds a different dimension to dishes. But use it lightly at first as just like the bulb, it can overpower delicate flavours.”
This particular wild food is often suggested as a great one to start your wild foraging adventure with, because it is plentiful and easy to identify. “The scent is the first giveaway when you are out foraging,” Noel says. “Many people will have had the experience of walking through the woods and thought they have caught the scent of garlic. The chances are they were either near some wild garlic or in the midst of it. It can be very prolific and really carpet an area.”
While it is easy to identify, you still need to take care: it can look very similar to lily of the valley, which is toxic. “The easiest way to tell the difference is the scent—lily of the valley does not have that garlic smell. But as any good forager will tell you, never pick anything you are not 100 per cent sure about.”
Delicate, star-shaped flowers
Wild garlic has long spear-shaped leaves and towards the end of the season, produces beautiful and delicate white, star-shaped flowers. It grows in moist soil and is usually found in woods as opposed to open fields, as it prefers the dappled shade created by trees that are not yet in leaf. “As a rule, the season will run from late winter to the end of spring,” Noel explains. “But depending on where you are in the country this can shift and of course, particularly with the unusual weather patterns we have been seeing, the seasons for any foraged produce can change from year to year.”
The bright green leaves have a wonderfully intense flavour—and don’t neglect the flowers. “They are also edible, with a lovely garlic flavour. Being less intense than the leaves, they are perfect as a garnish or for a last-minute sprinkle on a dish—a beautifully packaged hint of garlic. However, like most leaves they are delicate and will wilt if they get too warm. They are also easily bruised, especially after they have been picked, so it is best to buy them close to the time you want to use them,” Noel advises. “If you are keeping them for a while, put them into something with a bit of structure to protect them and then store them in a fridge or a cool dry place.”
Once you have your leaves, they are very versatile. “They will work in most things you would use garlic,” Noel says. More than one Borough Market chef has made use of this spring bounty: a quick look at the website throws up the likes of goat cutlets with wild garlic, spring onions and couscous; Hayden Groves’ linguine with wild garlic pesto; Angela Clutton’s brown shrimp and wild garlic butter new potatoes; and Rosie Birkett’s wild garlic gnocchi, asparagus and chicken broth, among others—all the inspiration you need to try this wonderful foraged food.