Although the wild garlic is only just starting to peek above the chilly soil, I cannot help myself but start planning all the things I will be making from this pungent plant over the next couple of months. Later in the season, as the leaves move past their best, the plant starts to flower; star-shaped, white, delicate blossoms, a galaxy moving gently in the breeze. These flowers are edible, tasting of garlic and pepper, and make a beautiful garnish to salads and pasta dishes. Picked before they open, the flowers are crunchy and packed with flavour, and make amazing pickles.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is also known in the UK as ramsons, and less commonly as stinking Jenny or gypsy’s onions. The etymology of the term ramsons seems to stem from the Middle English ramsyn, from the Old English hramesan, plural of hramsa (onion, broad-leafed garlic), from Proto-Germanic hramusô (onion, leek). This long linguistic road brings us ramsons, as well as the name for the related North American plant ramps (Allium tricoccum).
Wild garlic has been used as food for millennia across vast swathes of Europe and, as such, has a host of names in the myriad languages of the continent. Almost every other tongue has given it the name ‘bear garlic’, or versions thereof. The English language, in all its maddening charm, chose to ignore this and go for ‘ramsons’. The only other languages I can find that go this route are the Danish rams (ramson) and the Swedish ramslök (wild garlic), perhaps exposing some of our Viking roots.
However, just to muddy the waters even more, there are a few regional continental language variations that have similar roots to ramsons. And it is sometimes called bear garlic in English. Excellent.
If you are in as much of a pickle about all this as I am, the only solution is to pickle some wild garlic as revenge.
Wild Garlic Pickles.
Wild garlic is fairly easy to identify. It has broad, long, elliptical leaves that are pointed at the tip. The leaves are smooth-edged and have visible veins, and give the smell of garlic when rubbed between the fingers. The flowers are white, growing in umbels on long stalks, and have six petals. When in bloom the forest floor can look like the night sky in miniature.
It is possible to confuse wild garlic with the young leaves of lords and ladies, though these are rough-edged and, when unfurled, have rounded backward-pointing lobes. Young shoots are similar to the shoots of snowdrops and daffodils. Lily-of-the-valley is also quite similar, though the leaves grow in pairs where wild garlic is individual. All of these are toxic, lily-of-the-valley seriously so. The garlic aroma, or lack thereof, is the giveaway, though do be careful as all these plants can grow amidst the wild garlic.
For this recipe we will use the unopened flower buds of the wild garlic, picked when they are firm, light green parcels of flavour. These pickles are quite pungent (as you would imagine), nicely crunchy, and look very pretty in the jar and on the plate. Use them with cheeses and cold meats, sprinkle on salads, or use in place of capers for a garlic punch to an assortment of dishes.
You can play around with the spices and vinegar you use for these pickles, though the following is my favourite.
Ingredients – makes one small jar
Enough wild garlic flower buds to fill a jam jar – around 300g
150ml white wine vinegar
50g white sugar
1 star anise
1 bay leaf
Wash the flower buds, trimming off any long stalks. Drain, pat dry with a clean cloth, and then pack into a sterilised jar. Bring the vinegar to the boil in a non-reactive (i.e. stainless steel) pan, add the sugar, salt, bay, and star anise, and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Take off the heat and allow to cool completely. Strain, and pour into your bud-filled jar. (You will no doubt have some pickling solution left over – save for another jar or a different pickle.) For a stronger flavour, include some of your pickling spices in the jar. Seal the jars with vinegar-proof lids, and store somewhere cool and dark for a couple of weeks before eating. Unopened these pickles will keep for ages, once opened keep them in the fridge and use within a couple of weeks.
This article first appeared in a different form on Locavore Magazine’s website.