Ail des ours – known as ramps, ramsons, buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, or bear’s garlic – is a wild relative of chives native to Europe and Asia. The Latin name, Allium ursinum, and the french name, is due to the brown bear’s taste for the bulbs and its habit of digging up the ground to get at them; they are also a favourite of wild boar.
Wild garlic can be found growing prolifically throughout the countryside between the months of March and May. The plant is usually found in damp areas of woodland or riverbanks. You’ll be able to identify the flowers by their strong, distinctive garlicky smell. Used in cooking for hundreds of years for its fragrant flavour and antibacterial properties (soldiers in the First World War used the plant as an antiseptic), wild garlic is the perfect representation of spring. The second warmer weather begins to make an appearance, the shoots burst through the topsoil and begin to spread like wildfire. Wild garlic is part of the allium family, along with onions, leeks and (unsurprisingly) garlic. It’s a not too distant relative of the chive and can be eaten in the same way, as the stem, leaf and star-shaped white flowers are all edible. The abundance of wild garlic in the countryside is taken full advantage of by chefs, who use it to flavour all manner of dishes throughout the short season; some even preserve and ferment the leaves for use later on in the year. Obviously, wild garlic tastes like garlic. But it differs from the more common cloves as it is more mellow and has a distinct grassy flavour. The raw leaves have a strong pungent smell, but taste delicate and sweet. Early on in the season, some leaves can be quite fiery, so make sure you sample them before adding to a recipe to avoid disasters.
They are not easy to find and so I was thrilled to find some at my local market on Tuesday. I grabbed handfuls, filling up a big bag with the leaves and took them home to make some pesto. The good thing about pesto is that it’s easy to make adjustments as you go. Just pound, stir, or blend, until it’s to your liking. It’s especially good mixed with pasta, on its own, or with steamed spring vegetables tossed in, like fresh peas or fava beans, asparagus, or well-wilted greens. I love it smeared on little crostini as an appetizer, atop slices of slightly aged goat cheese.
Makes 1 1/2 cups (375ml)
200g / 7oz bear’s garlic, trimmed of tough stems (about 4 cups roughly chopped)
1/3 – 1/2 cup / (35-60g) shelled pistachios
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup (125ml) olive oil
1/2 cup (50g) grated Parmesan
Cook the pasta according to the package directions
In a food processor, add all the ingredients, except the olive oil and puree on pulse for a minute
(Using the larger quantity of pistachios will make it thicker)
Dribble some of the olive oil in along the way, to create an emulsion
Taste, and add additional salt, if necessary
If the pesto is very thick, it can be thinned with additional olive oil
I often leave it thick, and if tossing it with warm, just-cooked pasta, will add additional olive oil to the pesto-slicked pasta at the last minute, to get it to the desired consistency
Add the pesto to the cooked pasta and toss
Storage: The pesto will keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator
The pesto can be frozen for up to two months