Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wild foods

There are few pleasures in life as satisfying as a free lunch... well, I suppose there are others, but this one is pretty much at the top of the list.

If you're one to go out on a ramble in the woods, then you might have noticed that there is quite a lot of vegetation out in the wild. Perhaps you've even wondered if any of those plants were edible? Well as it happens, quite a few are not only edible, but quite delicious to boot!

Take wild garlic: it's a beautiful plant that should be up right about now. Its oval leaves closely resemble those of the lily of the valley, but they have a distinct garlicky aroma when you rub the leaves. The leaves come up in cool weather and pretty much disappear when warmth settles in. The flowering stalks come up later in June, and out of nowhere appear these beautiful balls of star-shaped flowers.

The wild garlic pictured here grows in my mother's garden. It isn't the true North-American wild garlic (Allium tricoccum, which grows wild only in the North East and is a protected species in Quebec), but bear garlic (Allium ursinum). Native to Europe, it has become a bit of a pest in certain american states. Both have similar leaves and flowers and are often interchangeably referred to as ramps. However, only A. tricoccum has an edible bulb very much like a regular clove of garlic (A. ursinum has a scraggly mess of gnarly roots), which turned out to be the plant's downfall. I don't know how true ramps are consumed outside of Quebec, but here the bulb is often made into a very pungent pickle. Unfortunately, it takes close to 10 years for the bulb to reach its full size...

If you do find some wild garlic, please do not dig up the bulbs. Pick only the largest leaves, and limit yourself to a couple per plant. And let the flowers go to seed to insure future generations of ramps. Better yet, if you have access to a garden with a shady spot, grow your own wild garlic. Bear garlic is quite prolific and can be harvested from the first year. The leaves start poking out of the ground pretty much as soon as the snow has melted, and offer a jolt of green in the early drab of spring.

Both bear garlic and ramp seeds can be found on the internet. I've also seen bear garlic on offer at plant sales held by horticultural societies, so you can try your luck there. From what I was able to glean, ramps are kind of hard to grow for an inexperienced gardener. Bear garlic, on the other hand, practically grows itself. It likes moist soil, and a shovelful of compost if you have it, and that's about it. It will grow under mature hardwood trees or under any mature perennial plant, but I'm not sure about evergreens. The flowers are also edible, but if you let them go to seed, your crop will double the following year.

Interesting tidbit: the growing season in Europe is much longer than that of Eastern Canada, and most hardy edibles are available much earlier (greenhouse rhubarb hits the London markets in February). However, bear garlic in the Jura (Eastern France, not too far from the Swiss border) and at Kew Gardens just outside of London come up in late April, early May (that's even later than in my mum's garden!).

Wild garlic has a mild flavour, and can be eaten cooked or raw. Sliced thinly, it can add some zip to a potato salad. If you manage to gather a big bunch, it can sautéed and eaten as a green veg, or you can dip in a tempura batter and have puffy garlic chips.

Bon app'!

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