I'm what you might call an accidental forager. Articles on how to salvage delicious edible produce for free from the countryside pop up on my gastro-literary radar (a posh term I have just invented for 'articles in various media relating to food') now and again, but I read them with little more than a cursory interest, safe in the knowledge that I am not likely to find half the glorious things they talk about within a ten-mile radius of my house (either in York or Cambridge) and, realistically, I'm probably not going to don the walking boots to achieve nothing more than a sparse handful of berries or greens, barely enough for cooking a meal for one.
My most successful foraging expeditions have actually been those that came about completely unplanned, completely by chance, and completely by surprise.
Pretty much all of these expeditions have taken place near our house in the Yorkshire dales. A casual walk a few autumns ago revealed hedgerows brimming with glossy dark blackberries, which seemed too delicious and inviting to go ignored. Unequipped with anything in which to put them, I used my cunning ingenuity and placed them all in the hood of the jumper I was wearing (which, fortunately, was quite an old one and a dark colour, so the resulting purple stains weren't too much of an issue). Subsequent autumn walks around the area have always been accompanied by a pocket full of plastic bags. Last year was particularly successful, yielding a massive tub of blackberries which sustained me through several weeks on porridge, in cakes, and squished into the roasting juices from a pheasant or partridge to make a delicious gravy.
Then there were the sloes, a couple of years ago. Again, happened upon on a quiet afternoon walk, I had to run back to get a bag for these, as there was no hood on any of my garments. The result of some slightly painful foraging (sloe trees have sharp thorns) was a kilo and a half of these plump little berries, which found themselves turned into luscious sloe gin - dangerously drinkable stuff.
There were the bilberries, gathered on a trip to Brimham Rocks in the dales. I'd been purposely foraging for these little blue berries - a wild variation of the blueberry, with a much more pronounced flavour - earlier in the year but had been fairly unsuccessful, taking about three hours to produce no more than a handful (they're quite well camouflaged in their bushes, are fiddly to pick, and are only around for a few weeks of the year). Suddenly they were everywhere at Brimham Rocks, glinting invitingly from their stalks. Again, having no bags on me, I had to put them in my red woollen glove. I ended up carrying around this giant bulging glove, stuffed with berries, and looking somewhat ridiculous (not to mention with a very cold hand). However, the result was a delicious bilberry pie.
This year, we spent Easter at our house in the dales. (There was lovely roast lamb, homemade hot cross buns, and a delicious salted caramel tarte tatin, should you be interested). I had actually jokingly said that there was no point in going out for a walk because there was nothing to forage at this time of year (I normally come up in autumn, when blackberries/bilberries/sloes are abundant). A walk around the grounds of Bolton Abbey soon proved me wrong.
All foraging guides will tell you that the best indication of wild garlic growing nearby is the scent of it in the air, and they're right. An unmistakeable waft of garlicky perfume followed us as we walked through the woods and by the river, and hundreds of bunches of the green stuff stood perkily aloft amidst the leaf litter and the trees. I wasn't sure that it was wild garlic I could smell (maybe someone was walking along behind me eating a piece of garlic bread or something - unlikely but possible), so I went over to one of the bunches and crushed a leaf between my finger. The scent is unmistakeable.
I was genuinely quite excited by my discovery. There was just so much of it, growing in huge vibrant green bunches all over the ground for miles. I've had wild garlic once before, but I bought it from a market, and it's not a common sight even when in season. It always makes me quite pleased when I see these things growing wild, things I've only read about before in those foraging articles that I tend to pass over without much interest.
Unable to resist, I picked a little clump of leaves. I'm not sure if this was strictly allowed, but I took so little and there was so much growing that I think it's probably OK. Besides, it was only going to die off, unused, eventually, so I figured it would be good to make the most of it. I had to laugh a little bit at some of the people around us, looking very confused and going 'Can you smell garlic?' to each other, totally unable to comprehend where the smell was coming from. Perhaps they too assumed someone around them was eating a piece of garlic bread.
Once again, accidental forager that I am, I had no receptacle for the garlic leaves. I stuffed a few in my pocket but wasn't keen on the idea that they might permanently impart their strong aroma to my coat, so I ended up just carrying a big bunch of them around with me.
Ridiculously, the following day I went for a walk and discovered there is an absolute forest of wild garlic growing about three hundred metres away from our front door. All that furtive carrying around of those garlicky green stems was apparently for nothing. I went back today and picked a large bunch.
What to do with wild garlic, I hear you cry? First of all, very finely chop it. You can use a food processor, which will turn it into a potent green paste that will then enrich a multitude of dishes. Apparently it's very good with both lamb and scrambled eggs, but I decided to make a beautiful spring risotto, studded with mushrooms, broad beans, peas and broccoli. I stirred about four tablespoons of very finely chopped wild garlic in at the end, along with a hefty mound of grated parmesan and a good sprinkling of salt.
It was utterly delicious. The beauty of wild garlic is that it has a really great garlicky flavour, but without any of the harshness of bulb garlic. The risotto was garlicky like the best garlic bread, incredibly moreish, greatly enhanced by the parmesan cheese, but it doesn't leave you with an aftertaste in your mouth. The flavour is altogether fresher and more subtle. Plus, that vibrant green paste turns the whole thing a beautiful pastel jade colour.
With the rest of my foraged spoils, I made a wild garlic paste. I put the handfuls of leaves, roughly chopped, into a food processor with a good teaspoon of salt and a few glugs of olive oil. It turned into a beautiful emerald green pesto-like paste, which I then put in a kilner jar along with a little more olive oil. That way, the garlic is preserved for later use - it doesn't store very well in the fridge, quickly losing its vibrancy, but kept in olive oil it should last a little while, and can then simply be stirred into anything. I plan to stir the paste into a hot pasta along with some lemon zest, pine nuts and parmesan for a delicious quick dinner.
Wild garlic risotto with mushrooms, peas and broad beans (serves 4):
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
250g mushrooms, finely sliced
3 sprigs fresh rosemary, needles finely chopped
300g risotto rice
A good glug of white wine
1 litre chicken stock
300g mixed broad beans and peas (or just peas/broad beans)
A large handful of wild garlic, blitzed in a blender to make about 4-5 heaped tbsp
Salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese, to serve
Heat the olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan and cook the onion and garlic over a medium heat until soft but not coloured. Add the mushrooms and rosemary and cook gently for a few minutes, until the mushrooms have shrunk and turned golden. Stir in the butter, then when it melts add the rice. Stir to coat the rice in the butter for a minute or so, then add the wine and stir. Wait until all the wine is absorbed by the rice, then add a ladleful of stock, stirring regularly as the rice soaks up the stock.
Wait until all the liquid is absorbed, then add another ladleful of stock. Repeat until most of the stock is used up. Add the broad beans and peas along with the last couple of ladlefuls (you may not need all the stock - taste to check the rice; it should be tender with a little bit of bite, like pasta). Once it is all absorbed, check the seasoning then stir in the wild garlic. Serve with large amounts of parmesan cheese to scatter over.