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Season's eatings: wild garlic

23 April 2012

After months of stored roots and fruits, spring comes to the larder in swathes of glorious green. But as welcome as shop-bought offerings of asparagus, young spinach and purple sprouting broccoli are, the real treats don't come neatly packaged. Right now, anyone fond of a woodland walk has an extra reason to don their wellies: at this time of year wild garlic is prolific.

A member of the Allium family, the plant's elegant broad, pointed leaves have the same pleasing combination of sweetness and astringency that make leeks, onions, spring onions, chives and bulb garlic so useful in the kitchen. Although edible, the bulbs of the wild garlic plant are usually too small to be of much use and if you ever buy a bunch you're unlikely to see any bulb at all (digging the bulbs out means no foliage for next year). The characteristic white flowers however, are perfectly edible – and pretty too – although the plant is at its best before too many flowers appear, signalling tougher leaves and a more bitter flavour. In April, when wild garlic is at its peak, you are more likely to find delicious tight buds than open flowers.

Like most people, I'm loth to ingest anything that tastes foul just for its health benefits. So the fact that wild garlic, like its cultivated relatives, is extremely good for you as well as delicious is an added boon. Eaten raw the leaves are at their most pungent and fiery, but they come into their own when cooked. In fact they are almost endlessly versatile: quickly blanched or wilted in olive oil they make a delicately garlicky alternative to spinach (but bear in mind they perform the same trick that spinach does of turning a carrier bag stuffed full of leaves into a measly side portion for two).

The season for wild garlic leaves is short – they're gone by June – but they are one of the most abundant wild foods and come into their own when paired with other spring ingredients. Served with jersey royals and asparagus alongside roast chicken or spring lamb they're a seasonal dream.

Eggs are also a natural bedfellow - in an omelette or frittata or woven into a plate of buttery scrambled eggs. Soothing spring risottos tame the wild leaf and it makes an excellent pesto. Of course, there's no reason not to use it in less orthodox ways as these spicy and moreish wild garlic and quinoa cakes demonstrate. And in a soup it is an excellent foil for a host of other fresh, green ingredients.

If you're a garlic lover but not a habitual forager, you might worry about the chance of picking something poisonous, and the wild garlic leaf looks very similar to that of the fragrant yet toxic Lily of the Valley. While misidentification is a real hazard with wild mushroom hunting there is no mistaking wild garlic unless you have a really, really bad cold; for a failsafe test, take a leaf and crush it in your hand, then inhale. And if your foraging range is limited to a wander round the nearest farmers' market you will almost certainly be able to buy bunches alongside other seasonal veg, although it does rather take the fun out of it.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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