It’s mid-February, the trees are bare and the cold wind is howling outside my window, but there are signs that spring is on its way. Walking through the woods I spotted the early emergence of one of my favourite spring greens – wild garlic or ramsons (Allium ursinum).
This plant is not only tasty, but, from February to June, grows in abundance around watercourses and damp woodlands, in some places carpeting large areas of the ground.
Although it isn’t that tricky to identify (the garlicky smell here is the key feature) it’s worth familiarising yourself with some poisonous lookalikes. The leaves of wild garlic can reach around 25cm long and are broadly elliptical and pointed.
They look quite similar to Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) leaves, which can sometimes escape the confines of people’s gardens and can be deadly poisonous- so be careful collecting wild garlic near gardens. Similarly, Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), another deadly lookalike, can be found growing in similar habitats, and has been mistaken for wild garlic on more than one occasion. Also of concern are Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) and the closely related Dog’s Mercury and Annual Mercury, which are much more common and often occur alongside wild garlic as can be seen here (wild garlic in the middle at the bottom, Lords and Ladies lower right, Dog’s Mercury middle and and top):
Neither is likely to kill you, but Dog’s mercury can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms and Lords and Ladies causes swelling, burning and irritation.
When mature, Lords and Ladies has distinctive arrow shaped leaves,
while the two Mercury species have serrated-edged leaves growing from a central stem and look nothing like wild garlic.
However, newly emerging specimens could unwittingly end up in your foraging basket – so be careful to collect mature wild garlic leaves. Once wild garlic starts flowering around April, its sprays of white, star-like flowers are unmistakable.
The really key feature, however, is that all parts of the plant smell strongly of garlic when crushed – this is not true for any of the lookalikes.
Having got that out of the way, let’s talk about the culinary virtues of wild garlic. All parts of the plant are edible, including the leaves, flowers and a small, onion-like bulbil below the ground. Eaten raw, the leaves are quite potent but, if you like garlic, also quite delicious. So much so, that I wouldn’t hesitate using it as a salad leaf or in a sandwich. It can also be used to make wild garlic pesto, or as I will demonstrate, some very tasty dolmades.
(I created this recipe from an amalgamation of two wild garlic dolmades recipes found at http://recipes.vegsoc.org/recipe.aspx?cId=293 and http://andotherrecipes.blogspot.co.uk/2008/05/allium-ursinum.html)
60 wild garlic leaves (as large as possible)
100g Bulgur wheat
200ml vegetable stock
75g grated halloumi cheese
1tsp finely chopped mint
1tsp finely chopped parsley
1 tsp coarse black pepper
1. Rinse the bulgur wheat, place in a ceramic bowl and add freshly boiled stock, then cover and leave for 30 minutes
2. Finely chop the shallots and lightly fry in oil until lightly browned,then remove from heat
3. Finely chop the olives, sun-blushed tomatoes, mint and parsley
5. Then immediately drain and refresh the leaves by placing in a bowl of ice water
6. Add the shallots, mint, sumac, parsley, halloumi, tomatoes, olives and black pepper to the bulgur wheat with a tbsp of olive oil and mix together
7. Next take 3 wild garlic leaves, unfurl them and place them overlapping with the shiny side down and leave midrib facing up
8. Add a spoonful of mixture to the middle of the overlapping leaves and roll over while pinching in the ends to form a complete parcel (this gets easier with practice, adjust the amount of mixture added to avoid overspill)
9. You should end up with around 30 dolmades, though in some cases where my leaves were quite small I ended up using four instead of three leaves per parcel
11. Remove, drizzle with olive oil and enjoy!
You’ll be pleased to know that in addition to its culinary virtues, wild garlic also boasts various medicinal properties – reducing high blood pressure and cholesterol, stimulating the digestion and acting against intestinal threadworms.