If you go down to the woods today: wild garlic in Britain’s ancient woodlands

To celebrate the beginning of May this year, I took a short bike ride 12km out of Oxford to some woodlands near Elsfield in search of wild garlic, also known as ramsons, buckrams, bear leek or bear’s garlic.

The plant, native to Europe and Asia, is actually a wild relative of the chive. Their latin name Allium Ursinum is due to the brown bear’s penchant for the plant.

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Wild garlic emerges from March to June, and is best picked in late April/May while the leaves are still young. It grows all across the British Isles, with the exception of some channel islands and parts of Scotland. It grows most commonly in woodlands and on riverbanks, preferring moist, slightly acidic soils. It is often found growing alongside bluebells in Britain, and is believed to be an indicator of ancient woodlands; woodlands that have existed for many centuries and developed a rich and complex ecosystem. These are considered to have been around since 1600 or even linking back to the original woodland that covered Britain up to 10,000 years ago. Ancient woodland today, however, is thought to cover only 2% of the land.

If you’re new to foraging then wild garlic is a good plant to start with. It is easy to identify, and has many uses. The easiest way to identify it is by its strong scent, produced by rubbing the leaves between you fingers (an often detected simply by passing a batch). The leaves are long, pointed and oval in shape, growing from the base of the plant. The flowers, which blossom in April, grow on leafless stalks that are triangular in cross-section, and white in colour with six petals.

My quest for wild garlic took me up to the woodlands near Elsfield, 12 km north-east of Oxford. I used the Oxford Wild Food map to locate where wild garlic was likely to be growing, and once in the region used my nose as a compass. Sure enough, within a few minutes of wandering through the bluebell carpeted woodlands, I found my first smattering of wild garlic…

Following the foraging etiquette that you should never take more than 10% of the total amount of wild plant at that site (to allow the plant stock to replenish itself, allow enough for other foragers and to reduce impact on local ecosystem) this first encounter was mildly underwhelming, as I had wanted to harvest a substantial amount. However, continuing my meander through the woodlands, I eventually came upon a much larger covering of wild garlic…

And then an even bigger one…

Wild garlic is attributed with having several health benefits. It is antibacterial, antibiotic, antiseptic is particularly effective at reducing blood pressure, therefore reducing the risk of heart disease and strokes. Although all garlic has this property, wild garlic has the greatest effect on lowering blood pressure. Due to its blood-purifying properties, it is also believed to lower cholesterol.

Beyond its medicinal purposes, it is also widely used in cooking. Despite its strong scent, wild garlic has a much mellower taste than conventional garlic. It is a surprisingly versatile plant, and can be eaten raw in salads, blended into pesto, soups and sauces, stir-fried, cooked in omelettes or paired with a wide variety of other foods.

With my harvest of wild garlic, I was keen to make the simple yet delicious wild garlic pesto.

Wild garlic pesto

To begin with, I cleaned the wild garlic leaves thoroughly under a cold tap and removed the stalks and flowers of the plant to set aside as a salad addition (the flower look lovely in a salad).

The next step was to blend the leaves together with walnuts, freshly squeezed lemon juice and olive oil. The amount of each of these ingredients is completely up to you.

I used a hand-blender, which takes quite a while. If you have a kitchen top blender, this will combine the ingredients quicker. With a hand blender, it is a good idea to chop the leaves up first before beginning to blend them.

Once you have achieved you desired consistency (I left mine fairly coarse, a little more blended than the picture above) , simply season the pesto with salt and pepper and spoon into whatever spare jars you have around the house. Pour enough olive oil over the contents of each jar to seal it off and ensure the longevity of the pesto. This way, the pesto should keep for several weeks. These can make lovely little gifts for family and friends and can be added to a variety of dishes such as linguine, melted over new potatoes, sautéed with vegetables or simply spread thinly on some nice bread.

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