We use foraged ingredients throughout our menu at Benedicts. That descends from my wife Katja’s grandfather in Germany. When she was growing up, she’d go out foraging for mushrooms, berries, leaves, and flowers, which is fantastic. That ethos has now passed onto my children, and when we go on our walks, we’re always on the lookout for nature’s snacks as we go around.
Wild garlic is in abundance throughout East Anglia right now and it’s one of my favourite foraged ingredients. It’s got incredible flavour and useability. You can have it raw or cooked, in a salad or in a soup.
Also known as ramsons on mainland Europe and America, their pungent, garlicky smell will lead you to where they’re growing, in damp, dark, shady woodlands. They’re such a beautiful plant, with long tulip-like leaves, then buds that turn into gorgeous white flowers.
This year seems to be a bumper crop. Some Ts and Cs about picking it. Yes, it is free, but you need the owner’s permission to pick it if you’re on private land, and out in public, you should only pick what you need. It’s better to pick little and often so it’s fresh when you use it – and you have to leave some for everyone else to enjoy!
A massive treat for my family at this time of year is to warm some crusty bread in the oven, split it open, spread it with salted butter, and wrap it in foil. We take it on our walks and when we find a patch of wild garlic, we open the warm bread up and rip the garlic all over the top. It’s delicious. My children, Holly and Coco, love it and I always say they’re like cows when we go out wild garlic picking. You turn around and they’re chewing it with bits of green hanging out of their mouths!
The best thing about wild garlic is the whole plant can be eaten, from the bulb to the leaves to the buds and flowers. In the restaurant, something we like to do is to warm rice or cider vinegar to blood temperature, around 36°C, and pour it into sterilised jars filled with wild garlic leaves. If you let that sit for a couple of months in a cool dark place, you’ll have an aromatic garlic vinegar, great for salads or even for adding to gravy. It can transform so many dishes.
What I’ve given you here is a really simple, quick recipe for pesto and a delicate herb pasta. We’ve all had traditional pesto made with basil leaves and pine nuts, but there’s no reason why you can’t use wild garlic. Make up your fresh pasta – or cheat with shop bought! – toss it with salted butter or olive oil, then dollop a big spoonful of wild garlic pesto on top, mix it through and dive in. At the moment, with the world being as it is, a few little gifts from nature such as this is, I think, a beautiful thing.