Wild Garlic and Five Pestos

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Having bought myself and been given numerous books on foraging over the last few years I’ve been determined for some time to take greater advantage of what the countryside has to offer. And not just the countryside but the seashore too. I live in Brighton for Christ’s sake and I often berate myself for not eating free fish and free seaweed that’s right there waiting to be harvested. To give myself some credit I have done a few things over the last couple of years as previous blogs will attest to. Crab Apple Cheese for example (which you can read about here), as well as things I’ve not blogged like Elderflower Cordial (some in the freezer), Elderflower Wine in 2013 (I’ve still got one bottle. It wasn’t amazing, but it got you where you needed to be), Haw Ketchup (not especially delicious but a good opportunity to make a cool label for it with a 50s pinup looking, erm, saucy), and best of all Elderflower Turkish Delight (from a recipe in the brilliant book ‘Hedgerow’ by John Wright, delicate, subtly perfumed, soft, sweet but not overly-so. The finished product, not John Wright). But every year for almost a decade I’ve somehow missed the opportunity to do something with wild garlic and have only remembered about it too late in the summer.

I’ve Matt to thank for it (the desire to do something with it, not the inability to remember). Long before foraging was such a ‘thing’ as it presently seems to be, when his family lived in a huge old house in Limply Stoke with a massive garden full of trees, when walking up the path back to the car Matt stopped and picked a leaf.

“Smell that”, he said “crush it and smell it”

I was amazed and impressed by the powerful, almost pungent pong, and equally determined to do stuff with it when the time was right. But for whatever reason I missed the chance year on year. So, this January, resolving as one does in the first few days of the year, I sat with my book and my calendar and in pencil jotted down the foraging I wanted to do on the months when I should be doing it.

Wild garlic is best picked when the leaves are young before it starts to flower as the flavour is more delicate. As it matures and grows bigger it becomes too pungent, so pick the leaves early in the season when they’re smaller and delicate with the feel of silk handkerchiefs. A bit of googling directed us to a patch just south of Hassocks where were found a beautiful wooded area perfumed with the scent of potential culinary adventure and the grin-inducing sight of a veritable sea of the stuff. We picked a carrier bag full and it was more than twice what we needed to make no less than five generous bowls of different pestos.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it, but there’s little gives me more pleasure than the acquisition and subsequent creation of free food, and these pestos were no exception. Ben, Matt’s son, was visiting, so not only did he join in with the foraging but he was my sous chef for the pesto making. The vibrant green and the equally vibrant fresh taste was just sublime, and the method so easy. We used a food processor but one could just as easily do it all in a pestle and mortar, a method which psychologically would I think have the rustic edge. The basic recipe was the same for all five (except the vegan version) and the quantities far from crucial. We tried a variety of nut and oil combinations, the verdict on which will follow the recipe:

Wild Garlic Pesto
100ml oil
75g wild garlic leaves, washed and roughly chopped
50g nuts, or seeds (toasted in the oven for between six and ten minutes depending on the nut)
40-50g parmesan (or another hard cheese)
salt, a generous pinch
pepper, an equally generous grind
the zest of half a lemon
acid in the form of either a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of red wine vinegar

Toast the nuts but be super careful, hazelnuts tend to toast really quickly I find and only need about six minutes, cashews longer, but all nuts can go from perfectly toasted to ruined in 60 seconds, so use a timer. If you’re using seeds you could do those on a pan on the hob instead. Then simply put everything apart from the oil into a food processor, set it running and trickle in the oil. Taste it and correct the seasoning by adding more salt, pepper, acid or cheese until you’ve got the balance right. Perfect on pasta, of course. Equally great smeared on toasted sourdough (see the last blog for that one), or stirred into a soup, or dressing a salad, or trickled on some grilled polenta, or folded into a risotto.

We tried the following combinations with the following verdicts. And I’m not going to say ‘really good’ for any of them because they were all really really good:

1. Brazil nut and E.V. olive oil with red wine vinegar – creamy, slightly earthy
2. Cashew and E.V. olive oil with lemon juice – more creamy and more lemony (but I think we were more generous with the lemon zest too)
3. Hazelnut and E.V. rapeseed oil with red wine vinegar – really nutty, and more emulsified. My favourite.
4. Almond and E.V. rapeseed oil with lemon juice, red wine vinegar and chilli – half a red chilli was whizzed in giving this a hot hit and an almost peanut butter flavour from the almonds. Almost like satay. The kids’ favourite.
5. Vegan version with cashew and E.V. olive oil – no cheese so about 60% more cashew nuts and increased salt. Creamy and slightly coarser.

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They’ll keep in the fridge for at least a week, and they freeze well too, so you could make a huge batch to last you through the summer and beyond.

Nettles is next on the list.
(George)

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