Spring seems to me the correct time of year for foraging for raw and tasty things to eat. I read in the paper the other day that there is now an APP for foraging.It seems a bit of a shame somehow. One of the best things about identifying plants in the field is having a simple identification guide, leafing through page after page of prospectives, identifying closely between book and plant, narrowing it down 'till at last you have the correct name - Latin or common (both have their charm). I suppose it started for me with 'The Ladybird book of wild flowers', a flower press and a scrapbook.
During my self-sufficiency days of the 80's and 90's, when John Seymour's 'complete book of self-sufficiency' became our new bible, we foraged for many and strange-tasting new things. Although preferring to forage for mushrooms alongside a more knowledgeable farmer friend, when it came to leaves and shoots every walk became a potential shopping isle. My friend Diane brings me a bunch of pungent-smelling wild garlic. This, for me, is the true green smell of Spring. It reminds me of the old walled woodlands of country estates in Cornwall, dark valleys and cool shade. I pass through a drift on my way to Bakewell and have to wind the window down and inhale.
The leaves are at their best at the beginning of the season - march and April - and the bulbs should be left for next year. Also known as Ransons, the leaves are wonderful stirred into risottos or in pasta dishes. They can, as Rose Prince says in 'The new English kitchen' be eaten raw, but "the intense garlic taste can repeat unpleasantly so i prefer to eat them wilted". Antonio Carluccio is obviously made of sterner stuff as he likes his between two slices of bread with olive oil and sea salt. An acquired taste, maybe. I have used the flowers in salads before and a little goes a long way but can be very pretty. The stems are the part that remain juiciest longest and can be chopped and used in much the same way as chives.
Although it is perfectly possible to substitute wild garlic into most recipes where the equivalent is garlic or chive, Carluccio in his '..goes wild' book has two lovely recipes. The first is a focaccia bread where the leaves are liquidised as a topping. The second, and one more to my liking, is a pasta dish of linguine, onion and chopped omelet, served with a topping of wild garlic and smoked salmon.
Young nettle tips and dandelion leaves are also at their best whilst young and tender. A battered old copy of 'The Greens Cookbook' (from its restaurant in San Francisco), tells me that a broth made from stinging nettles is rich and smooth and "gives the impression it could sustain one through an otherwise foodless winter". I made it once and can vouch that this is indeed true as the vast saucepan remained almost untouched as no one particularly liked it...so it could have indeed lasted an entire winter. However, it obviously has other properties as "soups made from the broth of boiled nettles have been known to support the lives of at least two saints - the Irish saint Columba and the Tibetan, Milarepa."
A far nicer way to use the nettle tips - either picked wearing gloves or from below (as all the stinging cells are on the tops of the leaves) - is in Carluccio's recipe for nettle gnocchi, which is pared with a dolcelatte sauce. The robust, nutty taste of the nettles spars well with the cheese where a blander one like spinach, added to the gnocchi, would flounder.