In the majestic beech woods that surround our place in Alsace, swathes of brilliant green, spear-shaped leaves are once more poking their heads 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 the 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.
Quintessential spring green
Bears are few and far between in our upper Rhine region nowadays, but the reemergence of wild garlic is still greeted joyfully each spring. 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 farmers 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 even found in pockets of big cities. The leaves are the only part of the plant to use, not the bulb (it should not be dug up) and they 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.
Delicate taste, tenacious land grabber
A word of warning to those who acquire a taste for wild garlic and who may be tempted to plant some in their yard or veggie patch: It will rampage 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. Alternatively, a batch of wild garlic pesto can be made, with toasted walnuts or hazelnuts, Parmesan and olive oil. 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.
Home bakers may be tempted to add a handful of finely chopped wild garlic to any basic whole-wheat bread recipe for a fragrant, green-flecked loaf — perfect with a bowl of soup, such as the one below, and a hunk of aged Cheddar cheese.
Spring Green Soup
With Wild Garlic
Makes about 8 cups / 2 liters, serving 6-10 depending on portion size
2 medium zucchini
10 green asparagus spears
- Remove stalk ends from wild garlic and chop leaves roughly.
- Trim and thoroughly wash leeks and slice thickly.
- Top and tail zucchini (do not peel) and cut in chunks.
- Snap woody ends off the asparagus and discard, cut asparagus in 4 to 5 centimeter/2-inch lengths.
- Peel potatoes and cut in large cubes.
- Bring salted water to a boil in a saucepan, boil garlic leaves for 5 minutes and lift them out with a slotted spoon. Set them aside.
- Add powdered (or crumbled cube of) stock to the pan, drop in the potato cubes, simmer for 10 minutes, add the trimmed vegetables and cook 5 to 10 minutes more until both potatoes and vegetable are soft (taste after 5 minutes).
- Fish out the tips from 6 to 8 asparagus spears and reserve them for the garnish.
- Put wild garlic leaves back in the pan, together with most of the cream (reserve a little for serving) and blend with a hand-held blender.
- Bring soup back to a boil, taste for seasoning and correct if necessary with salt and pepper
Serve soup in bowls or small coffee cups garnished with a splash of cream and reserved asparagus tips, or prawns/shrimps or wild garlic flowers
Sue Style is a dedicated forager and has written extensively on wild foods. Her book “Fruits of the Forest” was awarded (in its French edition) the Prix La Mazille International 1995 at the Gourmand World Cookbook Fair in Périgueux, France.
Photos, from top:
Wild garlic pesto.
Spring green soup with wild garlic.
Credits: Sue Style