That was an unprecedentedly early arrival, and what a difference there was in the taste too. The small, first leaves were delicate, mild and sweet. My recollections of 2011's pickings are of a much bolder and aggressive flavour. Was it because last year they had been fighting the elements and this year the leaves were coaxed out by mild sunshine?
Picking wild garlic, indeed any foraging, should be guided by the principle that nature's harvest may be free but it's also for everyone to share, so pick only what you can use yourself. Straying deeper into the thickets of wild garlic than dogs might have done is also recommended.
After picking off the stalks, wash the leaves thoroughly then wilt them in butter to lift grilled meat or poultry, even fish, if mixed with a little young spinach, which can soften the intensity of older, overly strong leaves too. The garlicky punch is ideal stirred into risotto or a vibrant soup, and a jar of wild garlic pesto in the fridge is a wonderfully bold addition to pasta or for tossing warm new potatoes in. A spoonful slipped into a stew enriches the juices with irresistible fragrance.
Wild garlic and hazelnut pesto
Makes one generously sized jar
100g wild garlic leaves, stalks picked off and washed
100ml olive oil
200ml hazelnut oil
20g parmesan, or to taste
Zest of 1 lemon
1. Set the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Place the hazelnuts on a roasting tray then into the oven for a few minutes until golden brown, but no darker. If the nuts still have the brown skin on, place the nuts in a tea towel and rub off as much of the skin as you can. Allow the nuts to cool then transfer them to the jug of a blender or food processor. Add the walnuts and garlic leaves then blitz the mixture at high speed for 10 seconds. Now add enough olive oil to just cover the mixture and blitz again to make a paste – this will still be coarse but try to process it so there are no lumps.
2. With the motor of the blender running, add the remaining oils in a steady drizzle so they are emulsified. Finally, using a Microplane or the finest face of a box grater, grate the parmesan very finely. Add half of this to the pesto now, and blitz, then transfer the pesto to a bowl and stir in the remaining parmesan by hand. Season lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper then transfer to a kilner jar or a storage jar with a screw-cap lid. Seal securely and store in the fridge until needed.
3. To use, give the pesto a quick stir each time before spooning out the contents, then reseal quickly. To protect the colour and flavour, the pesto is best added at the last moment, rather than allowing it to cook with ingredients, so toss it through pasta or potatoes at the last second, long enough to take the edge off the fridge chill but preserve the freshness.
Grilled poussin with wild garlic potato puree and wilted wild garlic
For the chicken:
4 whole poussins
1 dsstsp black peppercorns
5g thyme sprigs
1 large sprig of rosemary
1 banana shallot, peeled and sliced into thin rings
Rapeseed oil or olive oil
For the potato puree:
800g potatoes such as Yukon Gold, Maris Piper, King Edward or Rooster
200g butter, cut into small pieces
8 wild garlic leaves, washed and stalks picked off
For the wilted wild garlic leaves:
500g baby spinach leaves, washed and stalks picked off
50-60g wild garlic leaves, washed and stalks picked off
Butter and olive oil for cooking
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
1. You can ask the butcher to prepare the spatchcocked poussins or try it yourself. To spatchcock the poussins, use a knife or poultry shears to cut up each side of the backbone, from the tail to the neck, then cut out the backbone altogether. Open out each bird on a chopping board, skin side up, and press down firmly with the palm of your hand. Cut off the wing tips at the front and knuckles from the end of the legs to make the birds a neater shape. Secure each bird in a flat position with a long metal skewer, pushing it through from the meaty part of one drumstick across to the other. Place the birds in a large shallow dish or a roasting pan.
2. Now make their marinade: place the peppercorns on a tray and crush them once or twice with the base of a saucepan. Scatter these over the chicken then add the thyme, rosemary and shallot before adding enough oil to cover. Leave to marinade for at least two hours, longer if you can.
3. For the potato puree: place the potatoes in a pan and cover with cold water then add salt. Bring to a simmer then cook the potatoes until tender. Drain and leave to cool for a few minutes, then, wearing a pair of rubber gloves, peel off the skin and pass the potatoes through a ricer or a mouli legumes. Return the potatoes to a clean pan and place over a very low heat, stirring gently but regularly with a spatula to dry out excess moisture for two to three minutes. Place the milk in another pan, bring to a simmer then remove from the heat. Now gradually add the butter to the potatoes by beating it in with a spatula or a wooden spoon. Once it is all incorporated, gradually add the milk in a slow, steady drizzle, beating all the time. Season to taste with sea salt then cover with clingfilm.
4. While cooking the potatoes and making the puree, cook the chickens. Heat the grill to its highest setting then drain the poussins from the marinade on kitchen paper, transfer them to a roasting tray, season lightly with salt and place under the grill. Cook for 10 minutes, ensuring the tray isn't too close to the heat. When the birds are golden brown, turn them on to the other side and repeat until cooked.
5. To finish and serve: gently reheat the potatoes, making sure the bottom of the pan does not catch. Finely shred the wild garlic leaves and stir them into the potatoes. Heat a wide frying pan and add a dessertspoon olive oil and a knob of butter. Wait for it to melt before adding the baby spinach and wild garlic. Before the leaves have wilted, season them with a little salt and fresh ground black pepper, even a little nutmeg if you wish. Then, with a spoon, swirl the leaves around the pan so they wilt quickly – this will only take a few moments so have everything else ready. Transfer the wilted leaves on to a plate lined with kitchen paper to dry off excess moisture. Divide the leaves between four serving dishes, arranging them in a small mound on the side of the plate. Lay the poussin on the leaves then, with a large serving spoon, place a mound of potato puree next to the poussin on the opposite side of the plate. Serve at once, perhaps with a wedge of lime or lemon to squeeze over the meat.