You will know us by our carrier bags and scissors, our bottoms in the air as we bend low beside forest-lined riverbanks and reach deep into thorny hedgerows, sniffing and snipping. We are the foragers, and it is our time – of year, that is. Yep, it is the start of the Great British freebie-athon known as foraging season. First in line to be picked is wild garlic. Looking a bit like lily of the valley (which is poisonous) but smelling distinctly and unmistakably of garlic you can now find Allium ursinum (wild garlic/bear garlic/ransoms) under the broad-leafed trees that line streams and rivers all over Britain. Although it is free to pick, if you buy the pungent leaves in a greengrocer’s or market expect to pay quite a price. So don’t. Wild garlic season is short but potentially very rewarding for those who bravely take up the carrier bag. The long sword-like green leaves appear from late March to the end of April, with both the leaves, stems and teeny tiny bulbs all being edible. The leaves, a more delicately flavoured version of cultivated garlic, can be used in place of garlic, with the great advantage that it doesn’t cause offensive breath: the odour-causing sulfur binds with a unique protein, thus neutralising the smell. Potentially revolutionary when you think of the fear garlic holds for the young, free and single (us marrieds don’t care). Try it in soups, stews, fried up and stirred into mashed potatoes or polenta, in omelettes and dips – the flavour is more mellow than the smell. You can use the shoots and buds as you would chives, or cut a bunch into long pieces and stir-fry with Chinese flavourings of ginger and soy sauce. You can probably think of many uses. Once the plants are topped with delicate white star shaped flowers the season is officially over.
After a long, extremely cold winter what got me thinking of foraging once again was a purposeful riverwalk in an urban area of Edinburgh. Two weeks ago as part of her Duke of Edinburgh charity work Miss R and I were doing a clean-up with the Water of Leith Conservation Trust on a stretch of water by Saughton, just next to Bookers. Amongst the dispiriting sight of flyblown and dropped rubbish was a glorious deep green, sun-dappled carpet of wild garlic. It was all I could do not to down tools and gather up armfuls of whiffy loot, but I made a mental note to revisit before they began to bloom. In the end I actually did my foraging much closer to home, one mile away along the beautiful River Almond. On the pretense of a post-prandial walk I conned the family into accompanying me to the densely forested stretch down from the old Cramond post office, the bit before you get to the picturesque riverside village of Cramond. I was quizzed by several curious folk and felt strangely pleased to tell them what I was doing and what I would do with it. I’m sure many more sniggered at the sight of me climbing up the precarious slopes, away from the dog-trodden path, snipping and stuffing, but I didn’t care. Perhaps this is a ‘sport’ for the less-young who don’t feel the need to be cool. But what could be cooler than getting something useful for free? Beats downloading a bunch of free apps anyday.
Nutrition Notes: As would be expected, wild garlic is over-burdened with plant chemical goodness. For all the positive health kudos that common garlic gets, its wild cousin should share the attention. Due to their high sulfur content, wild and common garlic are highly anti-microbial, raising white blood cell production and fending off bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. But the sulfur compounds are also excellent in helping prevent lung problems, heart disease and cancers such as stomach and colon. Wild garlic is a particularly good source of magnesium and manganese, for muscles (heart especially) and bones, respectively, but is also replete with Vitamin B6, iron, phosphorus, selenium and zinc. But the sulfur compounds are the focus of scientific attention, and with good reason.
You might be wondering, why almonds rather than pine nuts? Well, pine nuts are delicious, and all nuts are nutritious, but almonds really are special and work wonderfully in this recipe. Almonds, especially the striated toasty-skinned ones, are a top source of natural Vitamin E , 24 mg per 100g, as well as being a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium (another great one for the heart) and top anti-oxidant, zinc. Some of you may balk at the calories but even though a 35 gram serving (1/4 cup) comes in at 200 calories, so much of it is filling protein and good fats that it’s a great snack that staves off hunger pangs and deliver nutritionally. Can you say that about a 400 calorie muffin or 150 calorie diet cereal bar? Exactly. And don’t worry about the fat – it’s all good, with inflammation-busting monounsaturated fats at the fore. Just hold off on the candy-coated nuts!
Taste the rice and feel the texture before stirring 4 heaped teaspoons of the wild garlic pesto and all of the spinach or blanched nettles. Drizzle over extra pesto slaked with olive oil if desired. I like it as is but you may like it with cheese grated over it. Serves 4