On Mothering Sunday, I picked wild garlic with my eldest son. We didn’t find any sweet smelling violets but cheery yellow celandines and primroses were popping up on the grassy ditch banks- spring is here. Foragers can have a lean time of it over the cold winter months but as the days lengthen, and we hear the distinctive song of the skylark as it hovers in flight, the forager can fill his or her basket with wild spring greens and buds. The March wind may blow but wild garlic works as well in a warming dumpling as a sushi style wrap.
You’ll often smell ramsons (wild garlic) before you see it, in woods or banks near water. Wild garlic frequently borders the drives of grand houses. It was planted here to avoid stinking out the kitchen garden. Bruise the lily of the valley style leaf to release a strong scent of garlic, and then use scissors to cut to your culinary need. Harvest enough for your own use, no more, and don’t tug out any roots. Pedants argue a difference between British ramsons and US ramps but loosely, both may be referred to as wild garlic. You may also find three cornered leeks or indeed, few flowered leeks (especially in and around Edinburgh). Both can be used in wild garlic garlic recipes but neither of these plants are wild garlic.
Jack by the Hedge adds a hint of garlic flavour too. The key to its likely location is in one of its colloquial names - hedge. City foragers may with luck, find poor man's mustard or garlic mustard nestled between tarmac and garden or supermarket fences. It often grows on waste ground. Avoid picking garlic mustard in areas where pets are walked or near busy roadsides. This fast growing member of the Brassicaceae family dislikes the glare of the sun.
Eagle-eyed gardeners may find it banking shady borders as they weed. Bruise a leaf of hedge garlic between a finger and thumb to release a light garlic aroma. Jack by the Hedge may be described as a groupie; find one plant and it’s probably the start of a lengthy border. Reference to Jack (Jill gets an occasional look in) in folklore means common, its inclusive, there for everyman (or woman).
Jack by the Hedge is well named. Its larger leaves are heart shaped and smaller ones (closer to the tip) are pointed, almost triangular. Left to its own devices, Jack by the Hedge can grow up to 1-2 metres. The white flowers (April-July) are in leafless clusters, each with four petals in the shape of the St George cross. The flowers are pretty and add flavour to a salad or soup.
Use scissors and cut a few leaves from each plant. Hedge garlic is however, a wild herb that a forager doesn't need to fret over because it is plentiful. Indeed, it is considered invasive in some areas of the USA. It is said to be a nutritious spring green, and can be found as early as February, if the weather is kind. The leaves at the top are the most tender.
Add finely chopped hedge garlic leaves for bite, a hint of garlic and colour to salads, dips, mayonnaise and sandwiches. Use the leaf in pesto, frittata and soups or add it at the last minute to sauces - one of its local names is Sauce-Alone. Chop the leaves in place of mint, for an instant sauce to eat with lamb. Pick and cook as fast as you can because the leaves wilt. One final word of advice: beware of overcooking Jack. Some say that this leaf is best eaten raw.
• 4 ripe tomatoes (400g)
• Zest ½ small orange, scrubbed
• 1½ French style batons
• 1 tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• 4tbsps. Hedgerow Garlic, washed and chopped
• Freshly ground pepper
• 15-20 Hedge Garlic flowers (optional – later in season)
Use a sharp knife to mark a small cross on each tomato and plunge the tomatoes in a bowl of boiling water for 10-15 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge the tomatoes in cold water for 10 seconds. Peel the tomato skins. Quarter the tomatoes and remove the seeds. Chop the flesh into small pieces and put it in a large sieve. Finely grate the zest of half the orange and add this to the tomatoes.
Leave to drain for at least 20 minutes.
Put the drained tomatoes and orange into a mixing bowl and add the olive oil and chopped hedgerow garlic. Mix briefly and season with black pepper. Meanwhile, lightly toast 1cm slices of the bread. Use a teaspoon to pile the mixture high on to the toasted bread. Decorate with the flowers (optional) and serve as soon as possible.
• Fiona Bird is the author of Kids’ Kitchen (Barefoot Books 2009), The Forager’s Kitchen (Cico Books 2013) and Seaweed in the Kitchen (Prospect Books 2015). Her latest book is Let Your Kids Go Wild Outside: Creative Ways to Help Children Discover Nature and Enjoy the Great Outdoors.