From mid to late March until the end of April as you walk in ancient woodland you may scent wild garlic. One of my favourites and a most useful things to forage. Cut up into butter, ground into a pesto, wilted with spinach, wrapped around meat and fish, this herb is scrumptious. As its name suggest it is a member of the allium family of which onions, leeks, chives and of course domesticated garlic also belong. For a foraging beginner it is also a wonderfully easy plant to distinguish, because not only are its leaves distinctive once seen, long, wide, green, untoothed (so smooth edged), growing straight up from the soil rather than off a stem, the smell is pretty unmistakable. With one proviso that Lily of the Valley – very poisonous - is also out at a similar time and does have similar leaves, but they do not have that distinctive oniony/garlicky smell that tells you, you have come across wild garlic. If you are at all unsure, do double check before eating it please!
Often you will know it is there by smell before you see what may be a sea of lustrous green leaves, or later in the season white flowers clustered on dancing heads. In the forest near me, the garlic looks as if it goes on for ever, before the bluebells and wood anenomes take over – also out at this time of year and further signs of ancient woodland. One of the other wonderful names for wild garlic is bear garlic, because it is rumoured that bears love the bulbs which they root up and munch. Similarly wild boar still search out these delicacies and feast on them. For the forager however, unless you have the landowner’s permission you will need to leave the cloves underground, and use just the leaves, buds and flowers. But with so much flavour packed into those, you won’t miss out. Another thing to note is that wild garlic does not keep long, even in the fridge, so picking and using immediately is the ideal way to go and for me, gives me the excuse to return another day to the woods for a fresh batch. Trying to get my fix before the plants flower and it is said the leaves lose the best of their flavour. Freezing garlic butter does prolong the season a little for me, but all too soon it is over and my mind turns to sorrels and samphire.