A Seasonal Specialty—Bärlauch (Wild Garlic)
The approach of spring brings with it so many wonderful things, including longer days, the return of the songbirds, the appearance of colorful crocuses, and fresher air. Here in Europe, however, in addition to the wonderful smell of flowers, spring is also accompanied by the distinct smell of garlic—wild garlic to be precise! Here it is called “Bärlauch” (bear’s leek), whereas in the English-speaking world it is also known as wood garlic, devil’s garlic, gypsy’s onion, ramsons, buckrams, and bear’s garlic (because bears love it and dig it up with voracious appetite). A relative of chives, it is a bulbous perennial with elegant, broad, pointed leaves, a very small bulb, and white flowers at maturity. Before it flowers, it has a strong resemblance to Lily of the Valley, which is highly poisonous to humans but typically appears later in spring.
Plentiful in spring, wild garlic grows mainly in semi-shaded wooded areas with moist, slightly acidic soil; it therefore can be found all around the Basel area. It can come up as early as late January and last until June, with the peak season being the months of March (in warmer winters) or April. It is not uncommon to see people carrying large bags foraging for wild garlic in the spring in the woods, near riverbanks, or on the edge of the highways at this time of the year. If you are not inclined to collect your own wild garlic, you can also buy it from the farmers markets, many of which are dedicated to wild garlic in the spring.
Although all parts of the wild garlic are edible—bulb, leaves, and flowers—it is mainly the leaves that are used. The bulbs are quite small, and the plants need to be uprooted to harvest the bulbs, which means that they will not come back the following year. When you buy wild garlic from the market, you will generally only get the leaves.
Wild garlic is extremely versatile, with a taste that is as similar to domestic garlic as it is to chives, albeit slightly milder. The leaves are delicious raw or cooked and work well in salads, soups, cream, cottage cheese, sauce, mashed potatoes, omelets, risottos, and pesto.
If you do plan to forage your own wild garlic, here are a few tips:
- Try to harvest the smaller leaves, prior to the flowering stage, as these will be more tender and not have any of the bitterness that appears as they mature.
- To be sure that you are picking wild garlic and not the poisonous Lily of the Valley, look at the plant carefully. The leaves of wild garlic are convex, have smooth edges, one main vein, a matte underside, and each leaf has its own green-colored stem. For the Lily of the Valley, in contrast, several leaves come from a single purple stem, and the underside of the leaves tends to be shiny. Let your nose also guide you by crushing any part of the plant between your fingers—wild garlic will smell strongly of garlic or chives, whereas the Lily of the Valley won’t. Just be careful that you don’t mistake the smell already on your fingers for that of the newly crushed plant.
- Fox urine can carry a virus that is dangerous to humans. Therefore, if you are picking your wild garlic in a forested or rural area where fox may live, it is best not to pick it from a flat surface where an animal may urinate, but rather from a slanted surface.
Wild Garlic Pesto
This recipe for wild garlic pesto will allow you to enjoy its distinctive flavor well into the summer. It can be added to variety of dishes, including mashed potatoes, risotto, pasta, soups, quiche, omelets, and even on meats in BBQ season.
- 150 mL olive oil
- 100 g wild garlic leaves (washed)
- 60 g lightly toasted pine nuts or almonds
- 50 g Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Salt to taste
Put all ingredients in a food processor and pulse it briefly until smooth. Transfer pesto to jar and cover with a light coating of olive oil to keep it fresher. Close tightly and keep refrigerated.Share