In the majestic beech woods that surround our place in Alsace, swathes of brilliant green, spear-shaped leaves are once more poking their heads up through the carpets of leaf mold on the forest floor. Wild garlic (also known as ramps, ramsons or bear garlic) is back in season again. It catches me off guard every spring. Just a month ago there was no sign of it and in another month or so it will retreat beneath the ground, not to be seen again till next year. I rejoice at its reappearance, grab my basket, don my boots and set off to harvest the elegantly tapered, fragrant leaves.
Wild garlic has always been associated with bears, as witnessed by its Latin, German and French names (Allium ursinum, Bärlauch and ail des ours, respectively). This is explained by the fact that these hibernating animals are extremely fond of 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 re-emergence of wild garlic is still greeted joyfully each spring. Somehow at the tail end of winter the body tires of rich, rib-sticking stews and stodgy roots, and starts to crave fresh spring greenery. Wild garlic (along with dandelion leaves, sorrel and the first tentative spears of asparagus) answers this need perfectly. Restaurant menus throughout Alsace, Baden (Germany) and Switzerland suddenly sprout a rash of soups, sauces and salads based on the pungent green leaves and any self-respecting farmer’s market has at least a few small bunches for sale.
Allium ursinum can be found growing in abundance all over the temperate world – and it’s not confined to damp forests but can even be found in leafy corners of big cities. The leaves are the only part of the plant to use, not the bulb (it should not be dug up) and these can be picked with impunity – the plant is almost indestructible. A little later in the season it will burst into a haze of star-shaped white flowers, which make a wonderful edible garnish.
A word of warning to anyone who acquires a taste for wild garlic and could be tempted to plant some in their yard or veggie patch: it will rampage all over the garden, and is harder to get rid of than even the most persistent unwanted guest (which is what it will become). The only plant it can be confused with is lily of the valley, whose leaves look very similar. If in doubt, a leaf bruised between the fingers will give a clue: if it’s wild garlic, the smell will be a dead giveaway.
There are countless ways to use these special spring greens, which have a distinct but not overly powerful garlic flavor. For a vibrant green, herb butter that will melt deliciously into steak, lamb or a firm fish like monkfish or turbot, a handful of leaves can be finely chopped in the food processor, to which will be added half a cup of softened butter, the juice of half a lemon and a pinch of salt. You can make a wonderful soup using the leaves, a couple of leeks, some good stock and a smidgen of cream at the end. If the garlic has burst into flower, use some of these as a garnish.
Alternatively, a batch of wild garlic ‘pesto’ (pace the purists in Liguria, for whom pesto is made exclusively with basil) can be made, with toasted walnuts or hazelnuts, Parmesan and olive oil. Spread it on slices of stale bread, which you’ve toasted for bruschette, or stir into a bowl of pasta.
A nice addition to a basic pasta dough would be a handful of very finely chopped leaves – wonderful with creamily set eggs and diced bacon (à la carbonara) or with ‘lamburgers’ made from trimmed shoulder of lamb. Finally, home bakers may be tempted to add a handful of finely chopped wild garlic to any basic wholewheat bread recipe for a fragrant, green-flecked bread. Perfect with a bowl of soup and a hunk of aged Cheddar cheese.