I was under deadline pressure, so my husband threw the wellies into the car and took the kids out of the house on a recent Saturday so I could get some work done. They came back a few hours later, running in to where I sat at my computer, saying, “We got you a surprise. Close your eyes!” I could smell it before I saw it — a bag full of freshly picked wild garlic.
My mother used to say that she felt like spring had arrived when the pastel-coloured M&Ms arrived in the shop. I know spring is here when the forest floor becomes a carpet of wild garlic. It gives new meaning to the Emerald Isle nickname at this time of year.
Wild garlic has long been prized in Ireland. In their new book, Wild Food* (a must-have for anyone interested in foraging), Biddy White Lennon and Evan Doyle write: “The early Celts appreciated wild garlic so much that annual wild garlic feasts had to be provided by the lower orders for their chiefs and kings … The Irish Brehon Law tracts (in use in Ireland from two and a half thousand years ago to until nearly the end of the sixteenth century) define the amount of garlic to be served as a relish as four stalks to each loaf of bread. It is widely used in salads, as a pot herb with fish, to flavour soups, stews, potato dishes, breads, scones, savoury pies and tarts. As a medicine it was mixed with honey for coughs, colds and chest complaints.”
If you want to know more about wild garlic (and a range of other wild foods), you can find fantastic downloads on the Wild & Slow website, including details of where to find it, colour photos of what it looks like, instructions on how to pick it, use it and preserve it plus a few recipes that include it. Georgina Campbell has also featured a few recipes from Wild Food in her April ezine.
I love to slice it into ribbons and add it to soda bread or stir it into mashed potatoes — like a wild version of colcannon — and this wild garlic, leek and potato bake from the Wild Food book sounds tempting too, but my favourite thing to do with it is to make big batches of pesto. It has all the same ingredients as a regular basil pesto, but the zippy, slightly grassy wild garlic makes a much punchier pesto. “Use it to impress as a dressing over salads, bake into your favourite bread dough, add to any pasta dish or mix with butter and slip under the skin of a chicken roast,” say Biddy White Lennon and Evan Doyle. Whatever you plan to do with it, just be sure to make a lot — it freezes beautifully, so scale up this recipe to make extra for a taste of springtime later in the year.
Wild Garlic Pesto
Makes 250ml (1 cup)
In their book Wild Food,* Biddy White Lennon and Evan Doyle advise using Kilner jars to store your pesto in, as the wild garlic and oil react with metal lids. I always make wild garlic pesto with a good squeeze of lemon juice to brighten the flavour, but feel free to leave it out.
50g (2 oz) Parmesan cheese
25g (1/4 cup) pine nuts
50g (2 oz) wild garlic leaves, stems removed
200ml (3/4 cup) rapeseed oil or extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, or to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Break off a 50g (2 oz) chunk of Parmesan cheese and cut it into a few slices. Place in a food processor and whizz until it’s roughly grated. Tip the cheese into a bowl and set aside. Place the pine nuts in the food processor and pulse until they’re roughly chopped. Tip into the bowl with the cheese. Doing it this way makes a pesto with some texture to it, which I love; if you’re not fussy about it, just blend the cheese, pine nuts and wild garlic together all at the same time.
Place the wild garlic in the food processor and whizz until it’s finely chopped. With the motor running, slowly pour in the oil until a thick sauce has formed (you might not need all the oil). Add in the lemon juice and pulse again to combine. Remove the blade from the food processor and stir in the Parmesan, pine nuts and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Taste the pesto and adjust the seasoning or add in more lemon juice if you want a little more zing.
Spoon the pesto into a clean Kilner jar (see note above) and store in the fridge for 1 or 2 weeks. This also freezes very well.
*I received a review copy of Wild Food from the publisher, O’Brien Press.