When I was a little kid in the 1970s, I was intrigued by the copy of Richard Mabey’s 1972 classic Food for Free on my parents’ bookshelves. But I also loved actual shopping with my mum. I remember walking down the high street of my home city, Winchester, her carrying a wicker basket and us visiting actual grocers, bakers, fishmongers and butchers. But Sainsbury’s had also arrived, and they were soon gone. Put out of business. Times changed.
I loved the supermarket too, fascinated by the variety and such things as hazelnut flavoured Mr Men yogurt. So we weren’t exactly food foragers, but my mum is knowledgeable about plants so could often identify things in hedgerows and woods on family walks. Like most people, we foraged blackberries, but while I did learn that rosehips had been used to make a vitamin-rich syrup during the privations of World War 2, for us at primary school they were more important for crushing up and sticking down the back of other kids’ shirts as itching powder.
Foraging, like baking, is of even more popular these days. And spring is when, among other things, the wild garlic appears. Wild garlic, like blackberries later in the year, is an entry level foraging plant, it’s easy to identify and can be plentiful. We met up with some old friends the other day, for our first pub garden get-together in who knows how long, then took the long way home afterwards. Dom took us to a favoured wild garlic patch, importantly away from the main dog toileting route. A strong garlic flavour is good. A dog wee flavour, not so much.
Wild garlic tends to grow in cool, shady places in deciduous woods and close to streams. Your nose may well help you find it. It’s so pungent, in principle it’s hard to confuse. Though it does grow alongside lords and ladies1 (Arum maculatum), whose young leaves can look similar at a glance but are a very different shape when inspected. And don’t smell of garlic. But they are also toxic, so take care.
Food for bears
Wild garlic is a wonder. Even its Latin name is great – Allium ursinum, bear garlic. Do bears like it? They’re smart omnivores, so it wouldn’t surprise me. We hunted them to extinction in Britain though, so it’s not something I’ll ever see here. The common name I grew up with for wild garlic is ramsons, which apparently derives from the old English hramsa, and may be related to the Greek krómmyon, meaning onion.
Anyway. We got a lot on that jaunt with Dom and family. I say a lot, but it was actually only two small nappy disposal bags, which were buried at the bottom of our backpack (unused), a legacy of the kids’ younger days.
If you have a lot of wild garlic, you may well need to process it. Years ago, when we still had an airing cupboard, I dried it, but found it lost its flavour. Fresh, it makes a good pesto, whizzed up with nuts, oil, grated parmigiana and seasoning. It’s also good for a simple pasta, just roughly chopped, softened in olive oil and combined, perhaps with a squish of lemon juice. You can also use it to make the Middle Eastern coriander condiment zhoug (thanks to my friend Alex, owner of Middle Easten food business Kabak for that one). Another way to process it was suggested by Dom: wild garlic butter. Just chop the garlic leaves fine, then combine it with softened butter, form into a roll, then freeze in greaseproof paper. You can then cut slices off to cook with, using it in lieu of normal garlic in recipes.
This year, I had another thought – wild garlic focaccia. As with every idea, it’s already out there on the internet, but I just used my basic focaccia recipe and added some wild garlic whizzed up in a food processor.
What we know as focaccia in Britain is more specifically Genoese focaccia, a white, somewhat soft tray baked bread containing a decent amount of olive oil. They bake it with salt, olives or herbs like rosemary. I’ve asked one Italian friend if they eat Allium ursinum over there, and he says yes, but not often. Which surprises me, as they have a strong foraging culture there. Even our local market in Rome would sell a misticanza2 of mixed foraged greens – foraged weeds – including dandelion leaves and whatnot. In the 1960 film Two Women / La ciociara, starring Sophia Loren as a shopkeeper who flees WW2 Rome to her native village in the mountains with her daughter, there’s a scene where the villagers are foraging the fields for any misticanza, any greens they can eat to keep starvation at bay.
Anyway, here’s the recipe. Use the basic recipe – with whatever editions you like – at other times of the year when wild garlic isn’t available.
Makes one large, 1kg, loaf
360g water, tepid
6g active dried yeast or 12g fresh yeast
585g strong white bread flour
9g fine sea salt
60g extra virgin olive oil
For the wild garlic paste. (I’m not going to be my usual precise self for this bit, as it’s flexible.)
About 80g wild garlic, a nice big handful
A few glugs of extra virgin olive oil
Good pinch of coarse sea salt
Add some chili flakes if you like some heat
Plus some more extra virgin olive oil
1. Put the water in a mixing bowl (or indeed the bowl of a mixer, if you prefer) and add the yeast. Leave it to froth up.
2. Add the flour, salt and olive oil and bring to a dough.
3. Knead until smooth, by hand or in a mixer.
4. Leave 10 minutes or so and give it another quick knead.
5. Leave half an hour, then stretch into a rectangle and fold into thirds.
6. Leave the dough to prove until doubled in size.
7. Stretch the dough out and put in an oiled baking tray. I use a rectangular enamel one that is 25x35cm, 5cm deep.
8. Leave the dough to rest and prove a bit more, for about 15 minutes.
9. Make the wild garlic paste in a food processor – just squash the leaves in, with a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil and a good pinch coarse sea salt. Whizz it up to a coarse paste.
10. Smear the paste all over the dough, pushing in your fingertips to give the bread its distinctive cratered surface and disperse the garlic.
11. Cover and leave to prove one last time, until doubled in size.
12. Preheat your oven to 220C.
13. Give the bread another drizzle of olive oil then bake for around 20 minutes, until golden.
14. Remove from the oven and drizzle with a bit more olive oil, so the bread is nice and moist.
15. Cool in the tin for 10-20 minutes then remove. Eat warm or later on. All that oil means it stays soft well for a few days.
Like many parents, I struggle to get anything green into my kids’ diets. I’m somewhat baffled by the seemingly innate resistance to any brassicas for example. It’s purple sprouting broccoli season in England now, and that veg is such a delight – sweet, and you’d think child-friendly with its small, tender heads. But no. The kids did, however, love this bread. The big one (increasingly big this year) absolutely scovered3 the stuff.
1 Just look at the Wikipedia page for all the wonderful common names for this lily. I grew up calling it lords-and-ladies or cuckoo pint, but there are numerous other names.
2 In Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book The Food of Rome and Lazio, she lists “Arugula [rocket], wild chicory, rampion, salad burnet, wood sorrel, borage, wild endive, poppy greens and other bitter greens” for Misticanza Romana.
3 Our family portmanteau word that derives from “scoffed” and “hoovered”.