If you go down to the woods today or any day in the next week or so, you should find swathes of wild garlic. Right now is the time to pick it, while the leaves are young and at their most tender for cooking.
Although it looks more beautiful later on, when the small white flowers pierce out from amongst the lush greenery, it becomes a little more fibrous to eat.
Even if you aren’t able to go foraging for it yourself in the woods, this delicate wild plant has now become available in farmers’ markets and specialist shops, so it’s worth seeking it out to enjoy it during the short season. Although called ‘garlic’, its flavour is more like a gentle spring onion and when cooked, it is only softly pungent and enhances other flavours, rather than overpowering them.
Supplemented with a few spinach leaves from my garden (still going strong despite being overwintered), all I needed were fresh eggs, a spoonful of ricotta and fresh herbs to make the perfect early spring dish.
Even though my vegetable patch is looking pretty sparse at the moment, outside of the garden the first opportunities of foraging are beginning, starting with nettles. Stinging or common nettles (ortica dioica) are a great wild gift of early spring and right now is the time to gather them, when the first tender leaves are starting to sprout.
Few things can be as menacing yet desirable as the stinging nettle. Their flavour is delicious, a bit like an intense, rich spinach and they’re full of health giving vitamins and iron. You need to pick just the tops off each plant, where the leaves are at their most tender and once cooked for 2-3 minutes in boiling water, they’re free from the sting. If you don’t cook them long enough, you can still get a harmless little tickle on the tongue.
Now is the perfect time to be picking nettles. They are young and tender and like any new season’s produce, at their freshest and best. Given that we spend most of our time avoiding contact with these stinging plants, it’s surprising to think what a pleasure they are to eat. So welcome their new growth and arm yourselves with gloves to go picking, because the reward is certainly worth it. Last week I ate a superb dish of nettle pappardelle at the River Cafe which inspired me to deviate from my usual nettle soup or ravioli recipes. (See my recipe for the Guardian for ravioli stuffed with nettles and ricotta ) The fun of this new method is getting the green colour and the flavour of the leaves into the pasta dough, rather than using the nettles as stuffing for ravioli or blended in a soup.
Fresh young nettles, stings still in tact
A few weeks ago I went to Morocco. Not the Morocco of hectic souks, dusty streets and busy traffic that I’d seen before. This time I visited a stretch of coast line where fields lead down towards the sea. A salt-water lagoon lies along the length of the coast, separated from the rough sea by a narrow ridge of land. The water in the lagoon rises and falls with the tide, and at low tide, figures could be seen stooping over, plucking clams and mussels from the sand. On the marshy shore line we collected thick bunches of green samphire and bought lobsters from the fishermen who had just hauled in the morning’s catch.