Growing up as a young boy in Wales, my grandma’ cooked by the seasons – as did everyone because this was a time before the supermarkets’ coming. Wild garlic was special to Nana Jones. It grew plentifully on the steep banks of the stream that ran between her house and my family home. She swore by wild garlic leaves for cleansing the blood after the long winter months. She related the food she prepared to well-being in equal parts with pleasure – the two should walk hand-in-hand she told me.
New growth nettles have much the same properties You want only the top four new leaves and you will need a supermarket carrier bag full as they cook down quickly – the bravery comes with going foraging in a pair of Marigold rubber gloves – other ramblers will talk behind your back and snigger for sure. The ignominy is worth it – another chance to have your blood cleansed and a wild feast into the bargain. Soups, pesto and, our favourite, nettle champ with buttery potato mash – and they lose their sting immediately on cooking, so just take care rinsing them beforehand.
Waking, Walking Hungry Bears
Back to wild garlic – the German’s call it Baerlauch - literally ‘Bear’s Garlic’ – because in earlier times when bears roamed the countryside, it was the first food that they would eat when they came out of hibernation. A likely tale, but one with a certain panache. Just one more reason not to get too close to a brown bear I’d say. Wild pigs love it too – another species best avoided in the forest unless you have your gun cocked and at the ready – and your hunting license stamped up to date.
Forage for your own – rub a leaf between your fingers and you’ll know instantly it is garlic. The tiny white flowers are a giveaway too. Lily of the Valley has a similar, but ribbed leaf and is poisonous, so rubbing the garlic leaf is your safeguard because the aroma is clear and strong – when you come across wild garlic there will be plenty of it. Any good book to foraging will help – check you local library or on the Net.
Wild garlic, when you can find it, is specially fine as a leaf to stir through pasta dressed with melted butter and Parmesan. Cooked down like spinach it also goes specially well, in small portions, with Spring lamb – for me that must wait until Easter Sunday when I break my Lenten pledge of no meat nor Martini’s. Breakthrough yesterday when I found Lent officially ends on Easter Saturday – but we’ll stay with our tradition of the Easter Sunday feast.
Pesto made with wild garlic is very special – follow the traditional recipe to the letter, just replacing the basil with freshly picked wild garlic. Another favourite is eggs revueltos- the Spanish mid-morning breakfast of stirring beaten eggs in a frying pan through lightly cooked fresh vegetables, from wild garlic and wild asparagus (trigueros) to leaf spinach and tiny sliced artichoke hearts. My tip is to add one extra yolk to the egg mixture – and to mix the eggs with your fingers, not a fork.
New season garlic is just arriving – hooray for that too as the winter stocks have begun to soften and brown. Wild garlic, if the cloves are large enough, is good roasted as an accompaniment to grilled meat or shellfish. Use is quickly as it doesn’t keep well and will shrink in a matter of days. Two quite different garlics to celebrate the Spring and the new coming – Easter can’t be far off.
Broad beans and peas will be here in days – break open a pod of either to make sure they are top quality because you’ll be asked to pay top price – the best come in from Italy, so best to check provenance too. Quite remarkable prices being asked for the first Jersey Royals – a few days ago I saw a record £17+ p/kilo. Remember these are grown in poly-tunnels to get to market early – like much of the early English asparagus – so none of the sea air which is trumpetted about by the PR’s. Are there people out there dumb enough to fall for that retailer greed?
The English Asparagus season was always May 1 to Mid-Summer’s Eve. Greed put an end to that tradition and so cheapened the ‘grass’ by lessening the anticipation of the first feast of this ancient plant which was recorded by the Persians – a civilisation who were one of the first to cultivate for food.
None of this greed and season dodging is Blue Collar Gastronomy. The beans and peas message is, as is my urge for you to try wild garlic – and nettles – if they’re new to you.
I never thought when I began my blog last year that I’d post a single piece involving waking brown bears, cleansing blood, wild garlic and eggs revueltos for breakfast, but I just did. Thank you long since passed Nana Jones – I learned so much in your kitchen at the old Cherry Tree Cottage.
Post Script: Such was the influence of my Grandma’s cooking craft that her kitchen memory lives on as far away as Sete (Herault).