Foraging for wild ingredients to use in restaurants has become more and more common over the years. Anything from wild mushrooms to wood sorrel is there for the picking. But the big caveat is that you have to know what you are doing. There are many lookalike plants and fungi that are highly poisonous, and one part of a plant may be edible while another is not. In 2013, the National Poisons Information Service recorded 237 cases of poisoning related to wild mushrooms in the UK. The main problem is misidentification, and the advice from experienced foragers is to consult the experts. These days there are plenty of commercial sources of foraged foods, from general wholesalers to specialist companies and individuals.
One item that is easily foraged and relatively easy to identify is wild garlic. It is found between late February and May, with warmer areas such as Cornwall often having the first showing. Wild garlic grows in deciduous woodland, on river banks and in hedges. I even see it in a shady area of our small local park. The leaves do look very similar to lily of the valley, which is highly poisonous, but the smell from wild garlic leaves is unmistakable.
Foraging, even for something as abundant as wild garlic, may not be desirable or practical for some kitchens and this is where the wholesalers will come into their own. The leaves are usually sold by the kilo and can be used in numerous different ways. The flowers are also edible and are delicious deep-fried in a light tempura batter. Once the flowers start to die off and the plant goes to seed, the green seed heads can be picked, salted and then pickled to make something akin to capers. A wild garlic pesto is a fantastic way to preserve the leaves. In the early part of the season, the leaves tend to be more pungent and fiery than later on, so do be careful with quantities.
One company cultivating wild garlic is Westlands, which has been producing a crop for five years, from late February to May. Full traceability is one obvious advantage and the company sells 50g punnets to half-kilo bags. Annual production is increasing, but currently stands at around one ton. Hand picking ensures the leaves are packed in pristine condition.
Chefs across the country are hugely inventive with wild garlic - possibly it's the excitement of the first real sign of spring, but a lot of the classic ideas come up time and again, even if it is with a twist. Darren Goodwin at Losehill House Hotel in Derbyshire's Peak District will be using pesto for breads and turning the leaves into the garlicky filling for chicken wing Kievs. Stosie Madi at the Parkers Arms in Newton-in-Bowland, Lancashire, is serving breaded cod cheeks with wild garlic mayonnaise and is planning delicate egg custard tarts finished with Comté or Gruyère.
Buying, foraging and storage tips
- If you are foraging, take care with identification
- Pick off the leaves - don't pull up the bulbs
- Common law in England and Wales allows for foraging for personal use only, unless the landowner's permission has been granted. Other bylaws and restrictions can apply, so check your particular area
- Wash the leaves thoroughly
- Allow to dry spread on cloths or spin gently in a salad spinner
- Store in the fridge in sealed plastic bags or tubs
- Small quantities and the flowers keep well with the stems in a jug of water in a cool place
Fish pie with wild garlic sauce
For the sauce
- 20g flour
- 20g unsalted butter
- 240ml milk
- 65ml double cream
- 1tsp Dijon mustard
- 30g wild garlic, chopped
- Maldon sea salt and black pepper
Make a white roux with the butter and flour. Gradually add the cold milk and cream to make a thick white sauce. Add the mustard and wild garlic and season. Press a piece of cling film onto the surface and cool.
For the fish
- 400g white fish fillet
- 300g monkfish fillet
- 150g scallops
- 150g raw tiger prawns
- 20g cornflour
- Maldon sea salt and black pepper
- Olive oil for frying
Cut all the fish and shellfish into pieces that will cook at the same rate, keeping them fairly large. Dry them off on paper towel and spread them out on a tray. Mix the cornflour with some seasoning and sift over the fish, turning to coat.
In a non-stick frying pan, sear the fish in small batches over a high heat. You are aiming for colour, but not to cook the fish through. Drain on paper towels.
For the mash
- 1kg Maris Piper potatoes
- 75g butter
- 100ml milk (approximate)
- Maldon salt and black pepper
Peel the potatoes and cut into evenly sized pieces. Rinse and transfer to a pan, cover with cold water and add salt. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until tender. Drain and steam dry. In the potato pan, heat the milk and butter. Rice the potato and whisk gradually into the hot butter mix. Add more milk if required. Pass through a drum sieve and season with Maldon salt.
- 20g breadcrumbs
- 20g Parmesan, grated
Beat the cool sauce to loosen it and then fold in the fish gently. Transfer to an ovenproof dish and pipe the mash over the top. Mix the breadcrumbs and Parmesan together and sprinkle over the pie. Bake at 180ÂºC for about 30 minutes.
Fish supplied by Samways Fish Merchants (www.samwaysfish.com)
For cultivated wild garlic, contact www.westlandswow.co.uk
Chicken broth with wild garlic dumplings
For the dumplings
- 200g self-raising flour
- 5g fine ground Maldon salt
- 100g suet
- 25g wild garlic
- 140ml water
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and mix in the suet. Mix in the chopped wild garlic and then add the water to create a dough. Mix until homogenous and then divide into 30 dumplings. Steam for 15-20 minutes.
For the broth
- 2tbs olive oil
- 2 carrots, peeled, cut in half lengthways and then cut on the bias into 3mm slices
- 2 onions, diced
- 1 15cm length of green leek, halved and finely sliced
- 1.5l clear chicken stock
- 2 large sprigs of thyme
- 10ml Kikkoman dark soy sauce
- 2 slow-cooked chicken legs, skin removed and meat shredded
Sweat the carrot and onion in the olive oil with a pinch of salt until they start to soften. Add the leek and cook for a further minute. Drain on paper towel to remove most of the oil and return to the pan. Add the chicken stock and thyme and bring to a gentle simmer. Once the vegetables are tender, add the chicken and dumplings to reheat. Add the soy sauce and adjust the seasoning.
Russell Brown ran the Michelin-starred, three-AA-rosette Sienna restaurant in Dorchester, Dorset, for 12 years with his wife Eléna. He now runs website and consultancy business Creative about Cuisine and specialises in restaurant consultancy and photography.
Wild garlic can start as early as February but March is more usual, depending on the weather. The season usually finishes late April to early May. The first crops are from France and often cultivated, and the UK crop follows two to three weeks later.
Chefs should expect to pay about £20-£25 per kg, which is an awful lot - not far off a bin bag full.
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