Down by the stream at the bottom of the hill the wild garlic has appeared. It has been visible for a couple of weeks, but more ground than leaf, so that it took some time and judgement to find enough to pick for a meal. This week, after the equinox and in common with the first trees that are breaking bud and the sheets of daffodils and primroses which have suddenly eclipsed the snowdrops, the leafmouldy woodland floor has disappeared under a green, allium blanket.
This first spring flush is magical. A resurrection and clarion call for the coming wave of growth. A signifier of ancient woodland the wild garlic also connects us to the past inhabitants of this site. Imagining the people who have lived here before us, seeking sustenance from the woods and hedgerows, you feel reconnected to their longstanding and hard-earned accrued knowledge. What is good, what can heal and even what can kill.
Although growing your own food can’t be beaten, nothing compares to finding your food growing wild. The act of harvesting the first leaves and shoots, filled with spring energy and the promise of new life, is a ritual that binds us to the land and makes us aware of the natural cycle of life and our part in the wider ecosystem.
As a town boy, although I picked blackberries as a child and knew that maiden great aunts brewed elderflower and blackberry wine, this was my only contact with food that had not been grown by someone. I didn’t really experience a breadth of wild food until I was in my twenties at university, when I moved from Manchester to the Peak District and met people with connections to the land who made elderflower champagne and cordial, hedgerow jelly or went looking for puffball, parasol and field mushrooms.
One of my strongest memories of eating foraged food was thirty years ago at Ivy House Farm, the Hampshire home of Antonio and Priscilla Carluccio, where Dan created a garden in the early 1990’s. Antonio was a great forager, having grown up with it as a child in Italy and, where the resurgence of foraging has been a fairly recent development in Britain, in Italy there is a long, unbroken tradition of using nature’s larder on a regular basis. Most times we visited there was something foraged served. A cake made from cobnuts, a simple salad of dandelion and hawthorn leaves and, of course, mushrooms. For him finding and eating wild food was second nature.
The day I recall was a cold, sunny spring Saturday. We were talking with Priscilla at the table in the cottage’s frugal kitchen while Antonio busied himself at the stove. Moments earlier he had come in from the garden with a bunch of shoots in his hands, which he held up in front of me and asked if I knew what they were. I hadn’t known Dan for long at that point and was unversed in all but the most basic of plants and said I didn’t have a clue. “Hop shoots! Bruscandoli! We are going to have a frittata for lunch.’ In a matter of moments it arrived at the table, served straight from the pan, with a loaf of delicious bread and salted butter. Nothing else. It was, naturally, delicious.
Hops do grow wild in Britain as they have been cultivated since the middle ages for medicinal purposes and to brew beer, but to meet Antonio’s demand for shoots and for ease of harvest Dan had planted them up arches in the kitchen garden. They grow to a huge height and can, like Old Man’s Beard, swamp a hedgerow, so when we were creating the vegetable garden here and wanting to replicate some of the abundance of Ivy House Farm, Dan planted a shorter growing variety, Humulus lupulus ‘Primadonna’, a dwarf variety which grows to 3 metres. We support these with twiggy hazel branches which they rapidly ascend to reach the roof of the barn before flowering in late summer. The distinctive pale green cones, as the flowers are known, can be dried and used in a sleep-inducing tea or to stuff a pillow to help with insomnia.
Pick only the first 15cm of young, emerging shoots, as they become tough and fibrous with length and age. However, due to the fact that cutting stimulates new growth they do have a relatively long season and will continue to produce edible growth into April. The common name of Poor Man’s Asparagus is somewhat misleading, but not if you think of the string thin wild asparagus that you also find in the vegetable markets of Italy to which it bears a resemblance. The flavour is nothing like asparagus, but green, nutty and with the slightly metallic edge of nettles. When picking in the wild do not mistake for the shoots of white bryony (Bryonia dioica), another twining hedgerow climber, which is poisonous and causes bad stomach upset. The potato farls are the perfect vehicle for a strong wild garlic hit. You could add or substitute with any other wild green herbs of the moment including nettle, sorrel, wild (or cultivated) chervil, bittercress and cleavers.
250g floury potatoes
50g plain flour
About 10 leaves of wild garlic
Salt and black pepper
4 fresh eggs
A handful of hop shoots, about 100g
A large knob of butter
First make the farls. Put the whole potatoes into a pan of hot water. Cover the pan and bring to the boil. Simmer until the point of a knife easily pierces them to the centre. 20 to 30 minutes depending on the size of the potatoes. Drain and allow to cool for a couple of minutes.
Being careful not to burn your fingers (use a tea towel to hold them, if necessary) quickly remove the peel from the potatoes using a sharp knife.
Either put the hot potatoes through a potato ricer or food mill, or mash with the butter until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
Sift over the flour. Chop the wild garlic leaves into fine ribbons and add to the bowl. Stir the mixture until it starts to come together. Then use your hands to bring the dough into a ball.
Heat a 24cm diameter cast iron skillet, griddle or heavy-bottomed frying pan on a fairly high heat.
Lightly flour the worktop and use the palm of your hand or a floured rolling pin to shape and press the dough into a circle about 22cm in diameter and 1cm thick. Cut the circle into quarters.
Place the four quarters into the hot skillet and cook for about 4 minutes on each side, or until a rich, golden brown with darker spots.
Transfer to a plate and put into a warm oven while you cook tthe frittata.
First boil a kettle. Put the hop shoots into a heatproof bowl and pour over boiling water to cover. Leave to stand for 1 minute then drain.
Melt the butter in a frying pan about 16cm in diameter. Gently fry the hop shoots for a minute or two, while you whisk the eggs with a large pinch of salt. Add the eggs to the pan and shake to cover the base. Cook over a medium heat for about 10 minutes until the eggs are just set.
Serve immediately with the farls.
Recipe & photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 25 March 2023