The woodland is misty with morning dew. Badger trails crisscross the carpet of bluebells as it stretches away into the depths of the wood – gnarled, ancient, held upright by moss. A spaniel, my spaniel, clatters about in the undergrowth bothering a blackbird who was just looking for breakfast. But best of all, the air is thick with the smell of garlic. This is my Eden. And I imagine I’m not alone.
So laboured was Spring this year, that the wild garlic patch in the wood is only just coming into flower. It’s not technicallya public woodland, but the whole village picks the wild garlic on the edge of the wood, furtively hopping over the rubble of a decayed stone wall to snatch a bagful, and thus we are all bound to silence by our shared culpability. So as a village, we find ourselves with a late, but by necessity secret, glut of wild garlic. Picture a village green at suppertime, wafts of garlic coming from every kitchen and residents surreptitiously tucking into a law-breaking supper. That is our village in May. A village friend served pesto when we visited last weekend. “Oh, is that made with wild garlic?” I asked. A shifty look as if to say, “you’re just as much a trespasser as I am” was enough to silence me. (Plus it was very good pesto.) Clandestine wild garlic harvests – it’s about as rebellious as we get here in the Cotswolds.
But I’m prepared to play fast and loose with my liberty for wild garlic. I am quite addicted to it. Partly it’s the taste, obviously. But mainly it’s the extraordinary satisfaction that comes from picking something wild and free then making dinner with it. For me it has an almost ritualistic element that pays tribute both to nature and the past. I imagine the hundreds of years that ‘our’ woodland patch has been picked by villagers past. On a foggy morning with an impressionable mind it would be easy to think you could see their ghosts picking the same garlic for their supper just as I do for mine. (Though perhaps the wall was standing then and the woodland more occupied so maybe it was more risky for them.) Anyway, the point is that foraging seems to me to offer something constant, and calming, in a changing world. Not only do we repeat the actions of our predecessors, but also Nature offers up the same wild garlic harvest year after year, oblivious to the changes around her (including trespassing law). For me it is this that makes wild garlic picking so magical.
Plus, of course, it tastes fabulous. Apart from pesto, for which I whizz wild garlic, parmesan, pine nuts, salt and olive oil, I recommend feta and wild garlic omelette, or piled on top of a pizza before cooking. Gill Meller batters and deep-fries the flower buds to serve with venison tartare, which, though faff-filled, is quite something. For a simpler option, just chop it finely and mix it with some salted butter then allow it to melt over roast chicken or dollop it atop a pan-fried steak just before serving. Either way, find some, pick it and think about the generations of foragers that have gone before you and felt the same immeasurable satisfaction at finding their own, delicious, food.