Spring has finally arrived- not with the sweet scent of flowers in bloom, but rather the spicy, pungent smell of garlic! Whiffs of raw garlic can be caught all around the forests and even in town. The unexpected culprit of this astringent aroma is a little plant called Bärlauch. “Bärlauch” translates to “Bear Leek” which just so happens to be one of its english monikers. The name apparently comes from the brown bear’s taste for the plant, and its habit of digging up the bulbs. But its more commonly known as ramsons, ramps, or simply wild garlic.
As the name (and the smell) would suggest, it is indeed an Allium. Though it is a wild relative of chives, the leaves look nothing like those of cultivated garlics and onions. Instead, the leaves are easily mistaken with the poisonous Lilly of the Valley. But don’t let that scare you- though the leaves may look similar when they first sprout in early spring, the older leaves are easier to differentiate, and the flowers look nothing alike. But the safest and easiest way to tell if you’ve got the right thing is to simply crush the leaves. If it smells like garlic, forage it; if not, forget it. Your nose always knows!
All that being said, it really shouldn’t be too hard to find wild garlic. At this time of year it grows en masse throughout woodlands and even makes its way into borders and gardens. Its mostly the leaves you’re after, which are great in salads, omelettes, soups and stir-frys, but the flowers and bulbs are edible too. The flowers are a lovely addition to spring salads, and the bulbs can be pickled. But keep in mind as you’re foraging that its probably best to be a bit frugal when harvesting the bulbs in order to ensure an equally bountiful harvest next spring.
When in season, wild garlic seems to be everywhere, but their season is short and before you know it, they’re gone. One way to make its strong flavor last just a little bit longer is to take advantage of all the fresh ramps now and experiment with all kinds of recipes, and then use one good batch to make plenty of bärlauch pesto for the weeks to come. Of course any variation will do, but here’s a basic recipe to help you along:
- 100 g wild garlic leaves
- 80 g pine nuts
- 60 g grated Pecorino (or sub. Parmesan)
- 100 ml olive oil
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- Wash the wild garlic leaves, dry, and chop coarsely.
- Gently roast the pine nuts until light brown and fragrant.
- Place all ingredients except oil in food processor and blitz shortly before slowly adding the olive oil and continuing to blend just until a paste is formed.
- Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
- Use fresh.
- To store for longer, fill the pesto into clean sterilized jars to within 2-4 cm of the top of jar. Make sure you press down firmly with the back of a spoon to remove any pockets of air. Then fill with olive oil over the top of the pesto to seal the surface. When using, stir it well before spooning out, and after use make sure the surface of any pesto remaining in the jar is completely covered with oil before you return it to the fridge.