Wild garlic is perhaps one of my favourite plants to forage, and was certainly one of my first. The leaves are wonderfully versatile, and can be used in anything from salads to lactoferments (the latter of which I use as a vegan-friendly ‘trotter gear’ to flavour soups and stews). For me, they are the true flavour of Spring. It is worth noting, however, that the leaves are not the only part of the plant that can be used, though they are, arguably, the most sustainable.
I do not, under any circumstances, condone the denuding of a plant or patch, and advise that people act with due discretion in the area in which they are foraging to ensure that the ecology of the area is not damaged, and that the resource remains available to others. Wild garlic in particular has a tendency to grow in damp, ancient woodlands – areas that should be treated with respect. This caveat is probably common sense for most people, however, I do sometimes feel troubled that this may not be the case when I see large quantities of it being sold in bundles at farmers’ markets and the like. It’s astonishing how a little fear of foraging, coupled with the mystique of something wild, can place a high price on something that is completely free, and often abundant (and how that, in turn, can encourage people to behave recklessly in certain environments – but all that for another day). I would understand better if wild garlic were difficult to identify, but with a little homework, it really should be a rite of passage to the amateur forager.
When foraging for wild garlic, the smell should always be a give-away, but be sure to have a good reference guide with you as well, as — particularly at the start of the season — the young shoots can be confused with Lords and Ladies to the untrained eye — and even seasoned foragers can make mistakes. I was once out walking in the Peaks with a friend who managed to nibble one of these young lilies growing in amongst some wild garlic, and can attest that it was a very unpleasant experience for them. To give you a clue, Guy Watson at Riverford once described it as feeling “like a fox had sprayed in my mouth and washed it down with sulphuric acid”. Yuck.
I happen to know an area that is completely carpeted with alium ursinum, so I feel comfortable taking a single bud from every second or third plant to make enough to fill a small jam jar with them. These will last me until next year, and will mean that I can enjoy their piquancy long after those luscious leaves have retreated. If you know such an area, why not try pickling some with your favourite spices? I used cider vinegar that I made last year*, as it is free to produce, uses up waste from windfall, and has a far superior flavour to commercially-produced vinegars, but use what you have to hand. Or, to remain on the safe side, try my stuffed wild garlic leaves preserved in chilli and garlic olive oil.
* You do not have to live in the countryside to enjoy making your own cider vinegar. Mine was made from apples from some forgotten trees on a residential street in urban Leicestershire, and it was absolutely delicious. If, like me, you live in London, the Urban Orchard Project has a number of helpful maps to show you where you can find fruit trees in your locality. It can be made on a very small scale, too – I used three large jars.