Food: The wild ones

Native plants to transform spring dishes. Photographs by Jason Lowe
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Around this time last year while in the Lake District for a couple of weeks I was reminded of one of my earliest gastronomic memories - it may even have been the very first. It sounds an unusual aide-memoire of that beautiful English region, but it was the evocative pong from the wild garlic - that appears in great profusion every spring - that once more twitched my sensitive nostrils last May.

As a child camping there with my family during Easter (in a dingly dell to end all dingly dells: wooded, sun-dappled and with exciting dark and dank hidey-holes), I vividly recall the green-leafed, white-flowered garlic giving up its pungent odour under the tramp of tiny feet. If we had been groovy Sixties hippies we might well have cooked the slippery green leaves there and then, sitting scantily clad around a "cool" fire, my brother and I inhaling the smoke from our folks' reefers ... But the parked Ford Zodiac that carried the neat tent, an assortment of pale blue Tupperware containers and the fact that mum taught in a grammar school quickly scuppers that particular fantasy.

Wild garlic seems to thrive in dark and damp patches of ground, although along the shores of Ullswater it also seems happy as a natural roadside border in the shade of dry-stone walls that keep the sheep in and line the narrow roads. Down by the water you will find it in shady patches, rudely poking its white flowers in between banks of bluebells, forcing a colourful contrast upon that altogether gentler scented spring bloom.

Last year, when I first saw quite how much wild garlic there was, I immediately went into restaurant-kitchen-profit-and-loss-mode. For the last time I had seen wild garlic for sale in my local greengrocers before I came away, I was sure it had been priced at a staggering pounds 6 per lb! Should I fill the boot of the car with all the bushels that the Lake District had to offer? Could I stand the odour - that would surely linger in the car for weeks - over a four-hour journey home, and in decidedly clement temperatures? Would Michanicou Brothers, of Holland Park, once I had arrived home, take all that I had gathered? I phoned them up to make sure. Well, it turned out that they only ever buy small amounts and, on the whole, not many people knew what to do with it anyway. So that was that.

Inevitably, I suppose, there the wild garlic will stay, decorating the damp and dingly dells of Lakeland for evermore. Of course, I brought enough home for myself (though not too much, as it does not freeze at all well), but it worries me that when something so utterly delicious is there for the picking - and for nothing - it remains ignored. They all know about it up there, but even the illustrious Sharrow Bay Hotel kitchen refuses to use it in its wonderful traditional soups. Ah, but I did, in my little kitchenette, in my suite by the lake. Oh yes. So here is the recipe for my Ullswater wild garlic and potato soup.

Wild garlic and potato soup, serves 4, generously

If you gather your own, don't bother picking the flowers as they taste of very little. I suppose you could sprinkle some over the surface of the soup for prettiness, but all the flavour is in the lily-like leaves. You should be able to pick or purchase wild garlic at least until the end of May.

75g butter

3 large leeks, trimmed of dark green tops, sliced, well washed and drained

1 litre light chicken stock

1 large potato, peeled, cut into small chunks and also well washed (the more starch you can wash out of a potato, the less chance there is of potato soups turning gluey)

2 big handfuls of wild garlic, coarsely chopped

salt and white pepper

150ml whipping cream

Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the leeks until well softened. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Introduce the potato, garlic and seasoning and simmer until the potato has collapsed into the liquid. Liquidise briefly but do not make the soup too smooth. Tip back into the pan and add the cream. Reheat gently, checking for seasoning as you go. Note: I have tried passing this soup through my favourite mouli-legumes (vegetable mill), but the garlic refuses to go through.

A dish of mussels with wild garlic, wine and bread, serves 4

I am going to break my golden rule of seasonal produce here. Mussels - native oysters and scallops too - are really only at their very best during the winter months. However, mussel growers now seem to have managed to extend the season, producing respectable specimens - so much so that there is no reason why you shouldn't try this dish now. The combination of the two ingredients is well worth my angst, as the taste of them together is just sublime.

100g butter

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1kg mussels in their shells, washed, rejecting any that will not close up

a slosh of Pernod (optional, but worthwhile)

2 glasses dry white wine

1 large handful of wild garlic, stems removed, coarsely chopped

1 tsp arrowroot

lemon juice

4 thick slices of toasted baguette, cut on the diagonal

Take 50g of the butter and fry the onion in it until transparent. Add the Pernod and allow to froth and evaporate - ignite it if you wish - and then add the wine. Bring to the boil, tip in the mussels and put on the lid. Turn up the heat and shake them around from time to time until they have all popped open. Tip into a colander with another pan set underneath. Leave to drain for a few minutes and then shell the mussels once they have cooled off a bit.

Decant the winey/mussel juices into a smaller pan and add the garlic leaves. Leave to simmer for about 10 minutes, then thicken with a little slaked arrowroot until the sauce is syrupy. Add the mussels and heat through. Sharpen with a little lemon juice if you like here, and check the seasoning. Introduce the remaining 50g of butter in small pieces, stirring constantly, until the mixture is good and shiny.

Finally, toast the slices of baguette, place each one in a shallow soup plate and spoon over the mussels and sauce.

Garlic and sorrel omelette, serves 2

Sorrel is another green leaf that grows wild in the countryside. Unlike wild garlic it has no real odour - however much one pinches and squeezes sorrel, it just leaves the fingers smelling of sour leaves - which surely disqualifies it as a herb. My dictionary refers to it as a "polygonaceous plant of the genus Rumex" and having "acid tasting leaves". I only mention this because I read an article which referred to it as a "herb" (along with lovage and sweet cicely) and one which is currently being ignored by most supermarkets. That much is certainly true, though hardly surprising. What chance does sorrel stand when, absurdly, coriander, basil and dill are stacked to the ceiling, but fresh thyme (surely the most English herb of all) is nowhere to be seen in my local Tesco.

Whatever, sorrel most definitely belongs in the greenery department, rather than beside the silly, plastic-sheathed herbs. And, by the way, don't get all emotional over the loss of colour when you apply heat to sorrel leaves, as they quickly turn a muddy green/khaki shade. Cooked sorrel can't help it.

3 spring onions, trimmed and sliced

25g butter

a handful each of trimmed sorrel and garlic leaves coarsely torn up

salt and pepper

4 large eggs

more butter and seasoning, for cooking the omelettes

In a roomy pan, stew the onions in the 25g of butter until softened. Add the sorrel and garlic leaves and, over a low heat, allow them to wilt and flop into the bottom of the pan. Stew briefly and keep just warm on the side of the stove.

Make two omelettes in the usual way (or one large one), spreading the green garlic and sorrel slurry across the omelette(s) just before folding