Sometimes, unique flavors are found in the most unlikely of places. Living right in the hustle and bustle of downtown Kolding, Denmark an urban area with a population of about 75,000, you don’t exactly expect to find unique flavors growing wildly just around the corner. But somehow amongst the noise, vibration and chaos of pedestrians, bikes, cars, trucks, busses and trains rushing by, on the slopes leading up to the 12th century castle watching over our fair town, there grows fresh, aromatic, herbal perfection in the shape of one of the most popular herbs of the Nordic food revolution: wild garlic.
Wild garlic, also known as ramsons – or Allium Ursinium if you will – is an edible, wild cousin of chives native to northern Europe and Asia. It grows quite rampantly in large patches, particularly in overly moist and slightly acidic woodland soil – and apparently in damp city soil as well. The plant is easily recognizable by its extremely characteristic, pungent and strong aroma that is best described as half onion-like, half garlic-like and entirely its own. The odor is so spectacularly strong that it can, at times, seem downright overpowering even if you just happen to be walking past a large patch when rain or dew has recently fallen and the wind is just right.
Culinarily speaking, though, wild garlic is good stuff! The leaves of this wild herb are not only edible, they’re also good for you and very, very tasty. With main flavor components that fall somewhere between really pungent shallots and fresh garlic as well as grassy, herbal notes and a slightly bitter aftertaste, wild garlic is one of the most flavorful, potent and unique wild greens available to Danish cooks.
As such, it has been naturally and prominently featured as one of the key ingredients in the so-called New Nordic culinary revolution, so prominently actually that some Danish foodies consider it overused and quite “last year”. But while professional chefs and cutting edge food bloggers may be over it, I still find it an extremely interesting and most of all flavorful green that can be used to impart a unique herbal, garlicky flavor into many spring dishes. And needless to say, I’m ecstatic to have found it growing freely right around the corner, in an urban environment none the less!
Certified Super food! Wild garlic contains about ten times as much Vitamin C as lemons, as well as powerful antioxidants, natural antibiotics and immune defense boosting compounds. It’s not only tasty, it’s good for you!
The trouble with wild garlic
So, why am I so excited about finding this smelly little plant next door? Other than its characteristic smell and flavor which are apparently a bit too much for some people, the main problem with wild garlic (for us city-dwelling connoisseurs, at least) is that it is not easily tamed and/or cultivated in a controlled manner. Wild garlic, unlike many other herbs, does not take well to being confined to smaller pots for ease and manageability. On the other hand, though, wild garlic isn’t exactly known either for its manageability or ease of control if planted freely as part of a herb garden. In this case, it will simply spread extremely rampantly if conditions are right. As a result of this unlucky combination of characteristics, wild garlic is not cultivated in any noticeable way or form, and most of us are confined to seeking out nature’s sweet spots in order to satisfy our needs for an early spring fix. And most of us do this at much the same time every year in frantic union with other foragers when news break that there’s wild garlic to be had.
This sudden gold rush for Denmark’s equivalent of the stinking rose usually takes place in late March/early April when the first, delicate and delicious green leaves clear the ground and will usually last for a few weeks until everybody have had their fill of smelly herbs and pungent dishes. It’s a ritual that is nearly as fun to watch as it is to participate in. At the beginning of the season, rumor will go out that there’s wild garlic to be had and reports will start trickling in about the best spots and the conditions this year. I’ll admit to being one of those suckers that rush out early whenever opportunity strikes to grab a bit of the pot. But unlike many, I now don’t have to rush far after discovering a source near the comfort of my own home. It’s right here, I can just grab a bag, take a short stroll and start filling up on the wonderfully aromatic superfood that is wild garlic. Good times!
Think I’m kidding? In preparation for this post, I posted the above image of my sweet spot on Instagram. Even as I write this, requests are still pouring in both publicly and via private message for me to reveal the location of the spot. Danes do love their wild garlic.
The fact that my sweet spot for wild garlic is located right here in the city is not only incredibly lucky and slightly weird, it also raises a few very vital questions: is food grown or foraged in an urban environment even safe to eat? Does it suck up pollution and toxins from the air? Will eating it make you better, or will it make you worse for wear? Well, let’s put it this way: there’s a whole lot of urban gardening going on across the world. In this city, and in other cities far more densely populated and polluted than Kolding, Denmark and I don’t see anybody dying from eating food grown in said cities just yet. If organic greens grown in rooftop gardens of New York City are safe to eat, I’m pretty sure anything grown around here is, too! And I do so, happily.
From what I have been able to figure out, the only thing to really worry about in regards to urban foraging or gardening is lead pollution of the soil in which crops are growing. This is mainly a problem in large metropolitan and industrial areas, though, and not something to worry about in the case of little old Kolding. I should know, our government and local municipalities are pretty uptight about these things and tests have recently been done. It’s something you may want to look into, though, if you’re looking to go foraging yourself in other places.
But that’s not to say you should eat things indiscriminately and without proper care. The fundamental rule to adhere to when foraging in urban environments, or anywhere else from that matter, is to thoroughly inspect and thoroughly clean whatever you choose to consume! I do take care to pick in places that look relatively undisturbed, I pay attention when picking and once I get home, I thoroughly wash and inspect everything to get rid of any dirt, bugs, superficial coatings or whatever else may have rubbed off on the leaves. Any leaves that look bad, damaged or the least bit shady, I just plain discard. I can always pick more. And you know what, I would have exercised exactly the same amount of caution and care with anything picked outside of the city. Things are not necessarily more clean simply because they were found in nature, y’know? And how f’ing cool is it that we can have nice, natural, crisp and edible things growing freely and undisturbed for the benefit of the masses right smack dab in the middle of a bustling city center? I’ll help you with the answer: it’s pretty cool indeed!
SERIOUS WORDS OF WARNING: Foraging is a fun sport, but requires some thought and knowledge. There are things out there that actually can and will kill you. And it’s not the environment in which the plant is picked. Wild garlic is sometimes confused for other species of plants, some of which are poisonous and at least one of them deadly. While wild garlic plants are pretty easily recognizable by their leaves, flowers and most of all their smell (when crushed between your fingers, their leaves release a strong, garlicky smell), deaths actually have occurred from mistaking poisonous plants for wild garlic. If you’re going foraging, I suggest you read up on things, use your senses (common sense included) and read this article for starters.
Having solved the question of edibility and food safety, we’ve only one question left to answer: what to do with all this freshly foraged wild garlic? Well, the title of this post pretty much acts as a spoiler, but really, the options are many! It can be used for salads, in soups, as a herb in your cooking, or a number of other things. Because wild garlic is such a powerful and pungent ingredient, it is – in my mind – best used in moderation and lends itself well to use in marinades, sauces or condiments, including a personal favorite of mine and the subject of this post: wild garlic pesto.
Two for the price of one: Wild garlic pesto is made in pretty much exactly the same way as an original Pesto Genovese – or classic basil pesto if you will – only it’s made using wild garlic leaves rather than basil leaves, oh and the regular garlic is left out of the recipe, of course. Substitute basil for wild garlic and add a clove of regular garlic to the recipe below and you’ll have the world’s best pesto recipe.
Going old school: Why Italian grandmas make a better pesto
As with an ordinary pesto, wild garlic pesto is best made without the use of modern technology! I’m sorry, but if you’re going to make a real, proper pesto, you’ll have to get your hands dirty and a bit of sweat flowing. Why? Well, while I do admit that using a blender or food processor is a hell of a lot easier than doing things by hand, it also makes for a far less superior result. Any Italian grandmother or true pesto lover will tell you this. The thing is, being torn to shreds by a blender blade spinning at several thousand rounds per minutes has sadly never done any good for the many flavor compounds of fresh herbs. It tears everything completely apart, destroys the most volatile flavor components and leaves the finished result with an odd, dull, cooked flavor. This is exactly why most store-bought pestos are lacking in flavor, freshness and oomph.
Working slowly and meticulously, though, painstakingly bruising and smashing the leaves, using either a sharp knife and a lot of patience or, better yet, an old school pestle and mortar, will lend you a fresh, fragrant pesto full of depth, bursting with herbal flavors at the cost of maybe 15-20 minutes of your time and a bit of elbow grease. No matter if you’re making a traditional Pesto Genovese, a Nordic-inspired wild garlic pesto or something else entirely. Is a superior pesto experience worth an extra 15 minutes of my time? I sure as hell think so! So go old school with me for a while, dear reader, as we make a very untraditional pesto in a very traditional way, using a pestle and mortar.
Fresh out of pestle and mortars? Or just don’t own one? You can still make Pesto the old fashioned way, all you need is a sharp chef’s knife and a lot of patience! With this approach, you’ll need to chop everything finely by hand, starting with the herbs. When they’re relatively finely chopped, you can add the pine nuts and chop these along with the herbs until everything is a huge mess, then transfer to a bowl, add grated cheese and stir in oil. Some people actually swear by this approach and call it superior. I have tried it and I’m inclined to agree. It really is a lot of work, though.
Wild garlic pesto
- 3-4 large handfuls of freshly picked wild garlic leaves thoroughly cleaned and roughly chopped
- 50 grams of pine nuts
- 50 grams of Parmesan cheese freshly grated
- A good splash of canola oil
Put a cold, dry pan over low heat and add pine nuts.
Warm pine nuts through, tossing regularly until fragrant and lightly browned, then remove from heat and set aside.
Add a handful of wild garlic leaves to the mortar along with a sprinkle of coarse salt.
Start grinding with the pestle, slowly adding more leaves as they start to tear and turn to mush.
When leaves are thoroughly mushed, add in the pine nuts and continue to mush away until well smashed and integrated.
Put away pestle and stir in freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Still stirring, add in enough oil to achieve a thick, saucy consistency.
Taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed. Eat immediately or store in an airtight jar in the fridge.
When making pesto, I like to only lightly toast the pine nuts instead of waiting for them to turn golden brown. This makes for a less toasty, but more creamy and nutty pesto.
What if I don’t have time and just want to use a blender? Well, you could do that. The results won’t be as superior but probably still better than most everything you’d get jarred in a supermarket or store. I’d love to see more people making pesto the old-school way, but I’d rather they do it using a blender than refrain from doing it!
Describing the taste of this wild garlic pesto to someone who has never had wild garlic is a little difficult. It has many of the components of a regular pesto: the creaminess of the pine nuts, the sharpness of the Parmesan cheese, the raw garlicky bite, but in a much more pronounced manner in this version. There’s a wild, herbal, grassy, slightly bitter quality to it as well that you don’t get with the basil version. It’s a little more in your face and a little definitely goes quite a long way, but it’s one to try if you’re not only into garlic, but also into fresh, green, strongly flavored and aromatic herbs. It does pack a punch, but a pleasant one at that.
The uses for this wild garlic pesto are pretty much endless. It can be used as a condiment for roast meats such as beef or lamb, to dress boiled, new potatoes or pasta, it can be used as a dipping sauce for crusty, home-made bread or to make Nordic gnocchi. With easter just around the corner, roast leg of lam with wild garlic pesto and mint doesn’t sound like a terribly bad idea, but that’s just me thinking out loud. The possibilities, like I said, are pretty much endless and you should feel free to make up your own applications. If you do, let me know, won’t you?