Wild garlic is back. It catches me off guard every spring. Just a month ago there was no sign of it on the forest floor, in those damp spots beside streams where it pops up reliably every March. In another month or so it will disappear without trace beneath the ground, not to be seen again till next year. I rejoice as it takes its new spring bow, grab my basket, don my boots and set off to harvest the elegantly tapered, fragrant leaves. (Unlike regular garlic, it’s the leaves, not the bulb, that are used.)
Wild garlic has always been associated with bears – just look at its Latin, German and French names, Allium ursinum, Bärlauch and ail des ours. (In the States it goes by the name of ramps or ramsons.) Seems that these hibernating animals are extremely partial to this garlicky member of the allium family, which emerges conveniently from its winter slumbers just as the bears are coming out of theirs.
Bears are few and far between in our upper Rhine region nowadays, but the rest of us greet the re-emergence of wild garlic joyfully each spring.Restaurant menus throughout Alsace, Baden (Germany) and Switzerland suddenly sprout a rash of soups, sauces and salads based on the pungent green leaves. Small bunches are offered for sale in farmer’s markets and – increasingly – at the salad counter of the supermarket. I marvel at the kind of prices they ask for what is, after all, a prolific and extremely invasive weed (don’t let it anywhere near your garden: it will take over). Far better shake a leg and go and fetch your own: I’ll bet it’s growing somewhere in your neighbourhood – look for a carpet of green in the forest and, a little later in the season when the star-like flowers appear, a distinct whiff of garlic in the air. If in any doubt about whether you’ve got the real thing, pluck a leaf, tear it apart and sniff it for that unmistakable garlic aroma.
There are loads of ways to use these special spring greens, with their distinct but not overly powerful garlic flavor. For a vibrant green, herby butter that will melt deliciously into steak, lamb or a firm fish like monkfish or turbot, finely chop a handful of leaves in the food processor and work in half a cup of softened butter, the juice of half a lemon and a pinch of salt. Or whip up a batch of wild garlic ‘pesto’ (pace the purists in Liguria, for whom pesto is made exclusively with basil) with toasted walnuts or hazelnuts, Parmesan and olive oil.
Alternatively, add a handful of very finely chopped leaves to your customary pasta recipe – wonderful with creamily set eggs and diced bacon (à la carbonara) or with ‘lamburgers’ made from trimmed shoulder of lamb. And if you’re into home baking, make a fragrant, green-flecked bread by adding a handful of finely chopped wild garlic to any basic wholewheat bread recipe. Perfect with a bowl of soup, such as the one below, and a hunk of aged Cheddar cheese.
WILD GARLIC SOUP WITH COURGETTES AND GREEN ASPARAGUS
Makes about 2 litres/8 cups, serving 6-10 depending on portion size
2 good handfuls wild garlic leaves (about 75g/3 ounces)
2 medium courgettes/zucchini
10 green asparagus spears
4 medium floury potatoes, about 500g/1 pound
salt and freshly ground white pepper
1.5 litres/6 cups water
250ml/1 cup whipping cream
garnishes: asparagus tips or cooked shrimps/prawns or shredded wild garlic or wild garlic flowers
- Remove stalk ends from wild garlic and chop leaves roughly
- Trim and thoroughly wash leeks and slice thickly
- Top and tail courgettes/zucchini (do not peel) and cut in chunks
- Snap woody ends off the asparagus and discard, cut asparagus in 4-5 cm/2 inch lengths
- Peel potatoes and cut in large cubes
- Bring salted water to a boil in a saucepan and boil garlic leaves for 5 minutes
- Lift out leaves with a slotted spoon and set them aside
- Add potato cubes, simmer for 10 minutes, add the trimmed vegetables and cook 5-10 minutes more till both potatoes and vegetable are soft (taste after 5 minutes)
- Fish out the tips from 6-8 asparagus spears and reserve them for the garnish
- Put wild garlic leaves back in the pan, together with most of the cream (reserve a little for serving)
- Blend everything together in the pan with a hand-held blender
- Bring soup back to a boil, taste for seasoning and correct if necessary with salt and pepper
- Serve soup in bowls or small coffee cups garnished with a splash of cream and reserved asparagus tips, or prawns/shrimps or wild garlic flowers