Wild garlic is one of the most recognisable and widely foraged vegetables in the UK. Its unmistakeable entrance into the season is a welcome sign that spring is tantalisingly close, and the dark, miserable winter days are behind us for good – at least for another eight months.
Provenance and history
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is also known as ramsons, wild cowleek, cowlic or wood garlic. Native to temperate areas with acidic soil across Europe, the UK and Asia, throughout history it has been widely used as a natural remedy for various ailments. Today it’s still known for its health-boosting qualities, including digestion, immunity and heart health, and it’s known as the ‘magnesium king of plants’ for its high levels of the mineral.
The leaves are a cross between a spring onion and traditional garlic, the flowers bring a hint of peppery cress, while the stems offer a slight memory of chives. It is a wonderful ingredient that blasts the taste of garlic into dishes without over-powering them with the spiciness that can be associated with conventional garlic.
The leaves won’t tolerate much cooking, so it’s best to just add them chopped up at the end. Alternatively, stir through a mushroom risotto, bake into scones, or make your own flavoured salt. The bulbs can be used like conventional garlic, or they are delicious thinly sliced and added to salads. The stems and flowers make fantastic garnishes, or for something more challenging, try wild garlic gnocchi.
Pairings or swaps
Most cuisines have a use for garlic, from chimichurri in South America to flavoured oils and stir fries in China. When raw, wild garlic is delicious paired with fresh herbs and zesty lemon, or used as a garnish such as in Italian gremolata.
Wild garlic is part of the allium family, which include onions, leeks, garlic, spring onions, and many more. The green shoots from fresh or ‘wet’ garlic can be used as a substitute when wild garlic is not in season.
Fresh wild garlic leaves can be made into a fiery pesto or paste with a pestle and mortar. A garlic press is always useful for quickly crushing the bulbs.
Food waste tip
You can ferment garlic in honey, or make oils and preserves. Wild garlic leaves are best fresh, but can be stored for several days covered with a moist tea towel in the fridge. Or make a batch of pesto and freeze in easy portion sizes for a splash of green when the season is over.
Music to cook to
Try old English folksongs to capture the foraging atmosphere, or perhaps a Ludovico Einaudi piano piece as you prepare Italian wild garlic gnocchi.
Never take more than you need. Forage lightly, or buy from a trusted ethical retailer. Wild garlic looks similar to poisonous leaf Lily-of-the-Valley – if in doubt, consult an expert.