Mark Hix sniffs out fresh and wild ways of cooking with the new season's garlic

Why do we still think of garlic as something foreign when it grows wild in our woods? If you go out into the country you'll come across swathes of the flat green leaves right under your nose - literally. You'll catch a whiff of the plants before you see them. The white, starburst flowers are out now too and you can deep-fry these in a light batter as a fritter.

Why do we still think of garlic as something foreign when it grows wild in our woods? If you go out into the country you'll come across swathes of the flat green leaves right under your nose - literally. You'll catch a whiff of the plants before you see them. The white, starburst flowers are out now too and you can deep-fry these in a light batter as a fritter.

At this time of year we're blessed with all sorts of members of the garlic family - some wild and some cultivated. Yet most of us stick to the tried and tested dried cloves of Allium sativum, that are fiddly to peel and chop, and often shrivelled up or sprouting green shoots after too long in the bottom of the fridge. Yet this is the most pungent type and the one that's most likely to put off those who are suspicious of the powerful smell, and who fear the effect on their breath.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was going mushroom foraging with Peter Jordan, the famous fungi expert. Our mission was to find St George's mushrooms and morels but also he promised herb garlic, or hedge or mustard garlic as it's sometimes known. This is a pretty mild form of the stuff and really more suited to salads than cooking. The plants look like weeds and I've probably been walking past them for most of my life.

Our restaurants, including The Ivy and J Sheekey, are using wild garlic leaves by the bagful at the moment. One of my colleagues at work, Andy, another keen forager, has even successfully planted wild garlic from the woods in his garden to help meet demand.

If you've got a garden, or even a window box or flower pot, garlic chives don't take up much space, and you can buy packets of seed or plants from garden centres. The taste is similar to that of wild garlic leaves, but it's not as much fun as gathering from the wild. They last all summer though, unlike the wild stuff.

Garlic shoots look a bit like bundles of unformed, pale whitish spring onions, and are easiest to find in Asian supermarkets. They are great in stir fries or just steamed with fish - either fillets or a whole one. If you grow garlic at home, you can also snip off the shoots above ground and use them in a similar way, or just chop them into salads or throw them into a broth at the last minute.

If the unsociable after-effects of garlic worry you, any of these other forms of the herb have the same beguiling flavour and aroma, but it's more likely to stay where you want it - in your cooking not on your breath.

Pork belly hot pot with clams and garlic shoots

Serves 4

I love the consistency and flavour of Chinese hot pots, and slow-cooked pork belly really gives a delicious soft texture to the meat, while absorbing the flavour of the spices. The combination of pork and shellfish is common in many countries and the sweetness of the garlic shoots makes a perfect and subtle combo. Pork belly can be quite wintery but this way of cooking it is more seasonal.

1kg pork belly, boned, rind removed and cut into rough 6cm x 4cm chunks
Plain flour for dusting
2tbsp sesame oil
50g root ginger, scraped and finely chopped
1 star anise
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp Chinese five-spice powder
50ml light soy sauce
1.5 litre beef stock
10-15g cornflour
Salt and pepper

to serve

200g palourde clams, washed well
120g garlic shoots, cut into 4-5cm lengths
A few sprigs of coriander, washed

Lightly flour the pieces of pork belly. Heat one tablespoon of sesame oil in a thick-bottomed frying pan, quickly colour the pieces of pork on a high heat on all sides then remove and drain any fat off. Meanwhile in another pan, large enough to fit the pork, bring the ginger, star anise, garlic, five-spice, soy and the beef stock to the boil, add the pork, cover and simmer gently for 2-21/2 hours, skimming off the fat every so often, until the pork is very tender. If the liquid evaporates too quickly, add enough water to stop the meat drying out.

Mix the cornflour with a little water and stir enough of it into the stock to make a thick gravy-like consistency and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes.

Put the clams and garlic shoots in a saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of water and lightly season. Cover with a lid and cook on a high heat, shaking the pan every so often for 3-4 minutes until all the clams have opened. Discard those that stay shut. Drain any liquid into the pork sauce and transfer the pork into a serving dish. Spoon the clams and garlic shoots on top and scatter over a few sprigs of coriander. Eat with rice or noodles.

Pickled new-season garlic

Makes a couple of 1/2-litre Kilner-type jars

Fresh new season garlic is sweeter and less pungent than dried. The cloves aren't completely formed and have soft skin so they are easy to peel, and you can just prize them apart and pickle them as they are. I broke up about 6-8 bulbs and pickled the biggest cloves, saving all the bits and small cloves for the soup below. You can eat pickled new season garlic as you would onions - it's quite mild and won't overpower the food or your mates.

3-4 bulbs of new-season, fresh garlic
600-700ml of good quality white-wine vinegar and maybe a little more
3tsp sugar
20 white peppercorns
2tsp black mustard seeds

Remove the long green stem from the garlic and reserve for the soup below or chop up and pickle it with the rest of the cloves. Separate the cloves from the bulb, removing any membrane as you separate them and again reserving these soft skins for the soup. Pack the cloves into Kilner-type jars, but not too full. Divide the peppercorns and mustard seeds between the jars, mix the sugar with the vinegar and pour into the jars to cover the cloves. The garlic will absorb some vinegar over a few days, so will need topping up with a little more vinegar. Leave for six weeks before you eat the pickle.

Two garlic soup

Serves 4-6

This may sound like a fierce concoction, but with fresh bulbs of new-season garlic - which is around for a while yet - you end up with a silky almost onion-like flavour.

The wild garlic leaves also come into play in a sort of pesto-like sauce to top it off and I suggest making a larger amount and keeping it in a sealed jar in the fridge to use on pasta or as you would pesto.

4 bulbs of new-season garlic, roughly chopped or the equivalent of 4 bulbs made up of the bits left over from the pickled garlic recipe above
The white of 3 medium-sized leeks, shredded and washed
60g butter
1.5 litres vegetable stock,
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
2-3tbsp double cream

for the wild garlic sauce

A small handful of wild garlic leaves, washed and dried
1tbsp lightly toasted pine nuts
1tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
4-6tbsp olive oil

Gently cook the garlic and leek in the butter in a covered pan for 5-6 minutes until soft, giving an occasional stir. Add the stock, season and simmer for 15 minutes. Blend in a liquidiser until smooth and strain through a medium sieve. When you blend the soup leave some of the liquid at the bottom of the pan so the soup doesn't turn out too thin. You can then add the remaining liquid to get the right consistency.

Meanwhile put all the ingredients for the wild garlic sauce in a blender and whizz. Whether it's smooth or coarse is up to you. You may need to stop the blender every so often and give the ingredients a stir so they get well blended, or add a little more oil.

To serve, stir the cream into the soup and season again if necessary, then pour into warmed bowls and spoon some of the sauce on top.

Grilled red mullet with wild garlic aïoli

Serves 4

Aïoli, an outrageously garlicky version of mayonnaise, is commonplace in France, especially the South, where they serve it with meat, fish and vegetables. Using wild garlic leaves instead of raw garlic cloves gives the sauce a much more subtle flavour and turns it a lovely vibrant shade of green.

4 fillets of red mullet, or a similar fish such as sea bass or sea bream
A small handful of wild garlic leaves, washed, dried and roughly chopped
100ml olive oil mixed with 100ml vegetable oil
Salt
1 egg yolk
Ground white pepper
Juice of half a lemon

Coarsely blend the oils with the wild garlic leaves in a blender. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolk and a good pinch of salt then gradually trickle in the wild garlic mixture to a thick mayonnaise consistency. Season with pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice and more salt if necessary. You can thin the mixture down with a touch of water if it's really too thick.

Pre-heat a grill to maximum temperature, season and brush the fish with olive oil, and grill skin side up for 4-6 minutes, brushing with more oil if necessary. Don't turn it over, it will cook through from one side.

Serve with a simple green vegetable. Here I've used wild sea kale which we gathered from the coast, but spinach or runner beans are also good. Serve the wild garlic aïoli on the plate or pass it round.

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