Had I been better prepared on Sunday just gone – on my wanders along the gorse-scented Sutton-side cliffs of Howth peninsula – I might have harvested several saladbowls of wild garlic blossoms to sustain me through this showery April week. As it was, I satisfied my appetite with memories of those fragrant blossoms which adorned one of the most wonderful green salads I’ve ever eaten.
It was part of a feast we prepared last May for my mother’s birthday celebrations which we were enjoying in the Burren in Co Clare, on another impossibly perfect early summer’s day. I had driven to Galway the day before to meet a man who had driven down from Mayo with the most delicious selection of greenery – albeit it greenery splashed with everything from candy pink to sunburst orange to ruby red. (In case you’re wondering, the man in question is Stephen Gould and you’ll find his leaves scattered on inspired menus throughout the west, including Castlebar’s brilliant Cafe Rua and Galway’s lovely Ard Bia.)
Anyway, on the day in question, our uncle turned up with bundles of wild garlic gathered on his drive from Dublin (harvested suitably far from the verge to be free from contamination from either passing dog or car). Their long slender leaves leant a sweetly sulphurous subtlety to the salad, while their delicate white flowers fluttered atop suggested a frivolity wholly appropriate to a 70th birthday celebration.
Though their simple beauty means they might need little more than a suitable salad to adorn, the subtle flavour of wild garlic (or Allium ursinum) makes it a versatile friend in the kitchen. Use it in warm salads or pastas, gnocchis or risottos in place of its more fiery sibling, the cultivated allium sativum. Its perfume lends a summer scent to soups for those cooler evenings – just remember to respect its delicacy in the cooking as in the harvesting, and handle it gently to preserve its promise.
If you happen to harvest a bumper crop, do as they do in Brooklodge in Co Wicklow and pound up a pesto (but gently, like I said). Remember, cooking is more art than science, so just play around with quantities of crushed nuts (pinenuts or toasted hazelnuts work well but you could experiment) pounded or pulsed with wild garlic leaves, roughly grated Parmesan or Desmond or whatever hard cheese you’re having.
Or, if you like the preliminary results, you might like to take inspiration from the thoroughly inspired Wild & Slow website. In a nutshell – that’d be a nutshell foraged from the wilds of course, so maybe a cobb nutshell, or a beech nutshell? – the clever people behind the Sugarloaf Slow Food convivium (the south Wicklow branch of Slow Food to me and you) have dreamed up a deepest winter festival to celebrate the zenith of the wild food season. It will be based in Macreddin Village, the home of Brooklodge & Wells Spa just outside Aughrim in Co Wicklow, and will be brimming with stalls full of different home made produce, all based on the bounty of wild food ready to be foraged between now and November. And because they know we all need a little encouragement, the organisers are providing us all with a dozen food templates: lovely little pdf booklets to download, print off and send you scurrying out along some previously unexplored boreen or clifftop, bag in pocket, to harvest what’s good and pickle it, dry it, cook it, cure it, hang it, salt it, smoke it and/or bottle it… and turn up in Wicklow to sell it at said Wild & Slow Festival (14/15 November 2011).
Even if all that sounds like too much hard work to commit to, have a glance at the website for some inspiration. They’ve kicked off with a focus on wild garlic, with lots of great recipes for preserved wild garlic but which can be adapted to use the fresh stuff. So if venison and wild garlic burgers sounds like your kind of thing, or if you’re more of a roast butternut squash, feta and wild garlic quiche kinda cook, or you’d maybe like to whip up some wild garlic chicken prosciutto croquettes to serve with béchamel sauce at your next party – download this brilliant little free booklet here.
Now, if only there were ways of capturing that sweet coconut fragrance of gorse and serving it up on a plate. Well, now that you mention it… but that’s another day’s work. Better check back in for Part III of this extensive ramble-inspired rambling.