Tom Hodgkinson finds free food in the woods
The sun is out and a young man’s thoughts turn to foraging in the woods. I am now a town mouse but harbour a longing for the wild places. Last weekend Victoria and I spent two hours tramping through a wood not far from London and while we were there, we filled our pockets with wild garlic or Allium ursinum meaning literally “onion of the bear”, presumably named thus because bears are known for their fondness for woods.
It’s a lovely looking plant with wide flat leaves and a white star-like flower. The wood floor was carpeted in it and a garlicky smell filled the air.
Wild garlic is also nicknamed ramsons, and I confidently asserted to Victoria that it was ramsons that Rapunzel’s hungry Dad stole from the witch’s garden, thereby condemning his daughter to imprisonment in a tall tower. However, on checking this, I discovered that it was actually rampion that he stole, a radish-like plant with the Latin name Campanula rapunculus. Rampion’s old name in German was Rapunzel. This made me wonder whether “wild garlic” might be a nice name for a baby.
Anyway, you must be careful when foraging not to pull up the bulbs. Just take a few leaves, twisting them off at the stem. Your industry will be well rewarded. I saw wild garlic on sale at a local (admittedly fancy) greengrocers for £4 per 100g. Foraging is perfectly legal as long as you follow certain guidelines: personal use only, don’t take all of it and only pick when plentiful. Here’s a guide to National Trust-owned foraging spots.
Wild garlic is delicious wolfed down raw and even more delicious when you take a leaf and wrap it round a piece of goat’s cheese and eat that. And it’s very good for you. According to herbal remedies website Plants for a Future, wild garlic studies have shown it to have a whole host of health benefits: “The plant is anthelmintic, antiasthmatic, anticholesterolemic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, cholagogue, depuritive, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, febrifuge, hypotensive, rubefacient, stimulant, stomachic, tonic and vasodilator.”
Not only that, but “ramsons ease stomach pain and are tonic to the digestion, so they can be used in the treatment of diarrhoea, colic, wind, indigestion and loss of appetite”.
My absolute favourite thing to do with them is make pesto. It’s incredibly easy to do and absolutely delicious as a pasta sauce, or on roast chicken, in salads, on cheese sandwiches or just spooned from the jar.
The recipe is not only easy, it’s easy to remember: 100g wild garlic, 50g parmesan, 50g nuts plus oodles of olive oil, all ground up in a blender or a large pestle and mortar. I grind the ramsons first, then add the cheese, then the nuts. Some like to roast the nuts in the frying pan beforehand. And as for nuts, you can use any that are lying around. Yesterday we had a few stray peanuts and sunflower seeds – that did the job nicely, though next time we’re going to try hazelnuts.
I put the pesto in a jar and plan to make larger quantities next time. It will make a great present.
Wild Garlic Resources
Riverford Farm for recipes and to purchase wild garlic if you can’t forage it.
Plants for a Future for technical info
National Trust wild garlic spots
Woodland Trust notes on wild garlic
These comments were mailed to us after an earlier version of the above piece was sent out as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
A friend who we nickname “Permaculture Anna” has just seen her book published called The Forager’s Garden. It was this selling point that made me see it as Idler material: Techniques to grow maximum food with minimal work and cost. I grow wild garlic in my vegetable patch and it comes back stronger every year. The ‘rewilding’ thing is coming home to garden scale growing (I also grow sea kale as we are in Hastings).
My dog did her own foraging yesterday, while we were out for a woodland walk on Gower, and was promptly sick… Wild garlic is not good for dogs, but it’s very attractive to them!
So timely – I have loads in my garden in Cornwall right now and was looking for a pesto recipe. Thanks to this email, I haven’t had to move from the sofa!
You are absolutely right to praise ramson. It is a very healthy plant, well known in Germany as Bärlauch. You can pick it these days in the English Garden in Munich or in the meadow near the river Isar. The whole environment is sweet with garlic smell. The Czechs are so dedicated to garlic that they have a rhyme:
Není dobrým člověkem,
kdo nevoní česnekem
A human being cannot be good
unless they are perfumed by garlic!
I have been eating garlic for decades. It is healthy and gives every meal the final touch. It also lowers your blood pressure down and helps you to fall asleep – so a pasta with garlic is just an ideal good night kiss! Besides the great pesto you mentioned (and you can freeze it, too), there is a plentitude of recipes for soups and spicy cakes and spreads and butters and so on.