An occasional series in which I pass on recipes that have been important for our family. They’re mainly for my children, Miriam, Finn and Benjamin, but I like to think other people might stumble across them and enjoy them too.
Wherever you go and whatever becomes of you three, I hope that you will always be within foraging distance of a patch of wild garlic. Then I will know that you must be near to trees, possibly in ancient woodland, and with luck some running water too.
The wild garlic in ‘our’ woods has been up for about ten days now. It’s one of the heralds of spring round here, part of an overture to the growing season that begins with lesser celandine in March, continues with the garlic and wood anemones. and segues into inky splashes of bluebells all across the banks of the stream.
You can track the progress of spring just by the garlicky smell. This morning I caught a faint tang just before I turned onto the path; soon the entire valley will reek of it. The trees are mostly bare still, but the valley floor is thick with the garlic, along with celandine and wood anemone. While I was picking the leaves I could hear wrens, robins and a nuthatch. A great spotted woodpecker was drumming in the distance.
I’ve always called the plant wild garlic, but ‘ramsons’ is at least as common a name. It’s also known as stinking nanny and Londoner’s lilies. According to Richard Mabey’s extraordinary book Flora Britannica (you need a copy of this), the Old English root of ‘ramsons’ is hrmsa, a word that crops up in a slew of place names: Ramsey Island, Ramsbottom, Ramsholt, Ramshorn and more.
In a few weeks the woods will be brimming with its starry white flowers. By then, though, it will be too late to forage as once the flowers are out, the leaves become tough and bitter. See if you can get out and find some now, and then try this wild garlic pesto recipe which your dad and I are having on wild (but not foraged) salmon tonight.
Walnut and wild garlic pesto
Traditionally, you make pesto with pine nuts but they are expensive so I decided to use walnuts instead. What follows is adapted from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe here. I’ve probably already told you: if I could only have one cookbook it would be Hugh’s River Cottage Veg Every Day.
You will need:
- About three large handfuls of wild garlic – around 75g
- 50g walnuts (without shells, obviously)
- 35g hard, mature cheese. Parmesan is the obvious choice; I used a hard goat cheese; a salty, grainy Pecorino would also be good, or you could use a vegan substitute
- Zest and juice of half a lemon
- About 120ml extra virgin olive oil
Put the walnuts in a baking tin and roast at 180 degrees for about eight minutes. Use a timer: they will go from toasty brown to blackened cinder in seconds. Leave to cool.
Wash and dry the wild garlic thoroughly (chances are you’ve picked it somewhere muddy), chop it roughly and throw it in a food processor. A liquidiser would probably work too. Add the cooled nuts, the finely grated cheese and the lemon zest. Blitz to a paste.
Leave the processor running, add the lemon juice and then the oil in a steady stream. The pesto will be quite sloppy but it firms up a bit in the fridge.
The end result is DayGlo bright with a big, gutsy flavour that explodes in your mouth. It can be a bit throat-catching when you first taste it, but it calms down once it’s incorporated with other ingredients in a meal. You could always add a handful of (preferably flat-leaf) parsley to take the edge off.