Foraging has become very trendy recently, sort of swept along with the artisan food/provenance craze, but at its most basic, anyone who has ever picked a blackberry can claim to be a forager.
Personally I am a bit sceptical of some of the foraging courses on offer – hundreds of pounds for a few hedgerow greens seems a bit like selling snow to the Eskimos to me, but I guess the vast majority of people would look at a hedge and not know where to start, and even country-raised people can still have a lot to learn about what’s out there and what’s edible. I think for me it’s gardeners’ snobbery – I remember in the garden I worked in, a visitor spent the morning walking the fields and very proudly showed me his little wicker basket, which held a few sorrel leaves and a primrose flower. I had to bite my tongue and not point out that in two minutes in the veg patch, I could have filled trugs full of enough fruit, veg & herbs to feed a family for a week! I am very happy to be proved wrong, though, if anyone knows of any good foraging courses.
Putting my personal snobberies to one side, I think you’d be crazy not to take advantage of some of the immensely varied, bounteous and actually downright delicious food that nature feels generous enough to put your way, and if it’s identification and unfamiliarity that’s scaring you off, why not start with wild garlic?
At this time of year, it’s abundant, easily identifiable because it’s in full flower, and easily reached, as it very handily grows along the lanes. The long, strap like leaves are very obviously garlic scented once you crush or bruise them, and the circular white flower head of pretty little stars should be quite easy to spot.
As with any wild food, there are a few ground rules. Firstly, pick no more than one area can easily bear – if it leaves an obvious dent, you’ve overdone it. Pick from more than one location if you need to. (Keep in mind the “If everyone did it…” Rule of thumb).
Secondly, don’t pick from right next to a path at ground level – ie, within dog-weeing range!
Thirdly, and most importantly, if you’re not absolutely sure what it is, DON’T EAT IT!!! If in doubt, take it home and check it out carefully, or buy a good field guide to take with you. The absolute classic is Richard Mabey’s 1972 gem ‘Food for Free’, but there have been many others since.
Back to the wild garlic. It is strong – you probably won’t need a huge amount, and I think it is better lightly cooked somehow or at least, in something like a pesto, well heated through. There are many recipes out there, especially on the Internet, but anywhere you would use normal garlic is a good place to start.
So far this year, for example, we have made a wild garlic pesto (with rapeseed oil) which got stuffed under the breast skin and inside the cavity of a roast chicken; a wild garlic & pea pesto for spaghetti; a wild garlic & spinach tart (with cheating puff pastry) and variations on the frittata/tortilla/omelette. I have a local friend who suddenly got very excited when we spoke about it and told me about their family’s definitive ‘Spring is here’ meal; asparagus spears, a poached duck egg and wild garlic hollandaise (a bit more challenging than my repertoire!), and a French friend I spotted with a handful the other day was going home to make sweet potato and wild garlic mash. Just an easy salsa verde of wild garlic, olive oil, some parsley & a squeeze of lemon juice would really jazz up pretty much any barbecued meat this weekend, or make a great finish for a barbecued Portabello mushroom.
As you can see, it is easy to find, abundant, easy to cook and really is delicious, so if you haven’t ever ventured beyond the humble blackberry, wild garlic might be the place to start your foraging adventures, so get out this weekend, take the kids for a walk in the woods or lanes and get Googling recipes!