For the first time in 15 years I don’t have a vegetable garden to tend. Instead I have two small planters filled with some fresh herbs I can’t live without (lovage, parsley, chives, basil and coriander). While I miss Petraia’s amazing orto, to be honest I don’t miss all the work that went with it. The organic produce I can buy here directly from farmers in the local markets is excellent and I love being able to shop for it. But having said that, it still does not match the quality of what I used to pull directly out of the ground at Petraia. That’s not because we produced better stuff, we didn’t. It’s because we had a luxury most commercial growers don’t. We could harvest our vegetables at the perfect moment, not for yield, or for consistency, but just for the best flavor. After that, they were consumed or preserved immediately, not the next day or even the next week. So I will admit it, I am a spoiled, rotten, vegetable snob. But the truth is, best just gets better when you grow your own.
As we settle into spring and the growing season begins again I’m here to tell you I am missing my orto. But I’m also curious to see just how much food I can pull from the ground anyway, without a garden to tend. I’m talking about foraging of course and the free food I hope to find in the lush alpine meadows and forests surrounding me. And then there are rivers and lakes too. Lac Leman is literally just a stones throw away and it is full of char, perch, trout, whitefish, pike……
The spring foraging season began early this year in late February with the arrival of dent de leon (dandelion greens). They appeared mostly in delicious salads spiked with crispy lardons and topped with poached eggs. Ail des ours (bear’s garlic or allium ursinum) came up next and is in full swing right now. Since early March we have eaten it in some form pretty much every day. Because the alps rise steeply behind our lakeside village I have enjoyed an extended growing season for these delicious greens. They appear early in the woodlands above the lake and come on progressively later in the mountains above us. Just like the Swiss cows who move to higher pastures as the season progresses, each week I climb a little further up the mountain to harvest the youngest wild garlic. These plants are always the best ones, they have a sweeter taste and a delicate garlic flavor. As they mature the leaves get tougher and the garlic taste stronger. But I’m not giving up on those older plants. They are starting to produce buds for pickling and as their stems get longer and thicker, I will ferment them. There will be lots of pretty edible white flowers too, for salads. Each day I harvest twice as much wild garlic as I need and freeze the rest to use once the season is over. The leaves make a perfect substitute for frozen spinach or chard. Quite a bounty and all from one prolific plant!
Also called ramsons, wild garlic is very similar to the wild leek (ramps) I knew growing up in Ontario, but it has a pronounced garlic flavor. The smell of garlic wafts through the woods at this time of the year making the plants very easy to find. Wild garlic bulbs are smaller than those of wild leeks so I don’t bother pulling those. I use the tender green leaves in salads, mayonnaise, pesto, fresh pasta, gnocchi, ramson oil, guacamole, frittate, omlettes, savory tarts, flans, soups, breads and finally, simply wilted in a hot pan with a drizzle of EVOO.
My favorite thing to make with wild garlic is matefaim, the savory (or sometimes sweet) pancakes that are a specialty of the nearby French Haute Savoie and Jura departments. I previously wrote a post about those here. One of the recipes was for a spinach matefaim and it called for blanched spinach. But the delicate and tender leaves of wild garlic do not take kindly to blanching, they lose not only their vibrant color but also much of their flavor. I discovered if you toss them raw into the blender with the egg and flour you can make a vibrant green pancake full of garlicy goodness. The batter is speckled with bits of the leaf and those retain a tiny bit of texture once they are cooked. Brilliant. Much better in fact than the spinach version and probably better for you too.
I sometimes serve these delicious pancakes with a dollop of sun dried tomato catsup but that is not a requirement and could even be construed by some as gilding the lily. These pancakes are seriously nourishing and packed with zest. Eating them always gives me a bit of a high, as if the lifeblood of the plant has been injected directly into my veins.
You can use wild leeks or young baby spinach or arugula or any other edible and tender greens if you don’t have wild garlic. Once I get inundated with lovage and basil from my pots I plan to use those. Scroll down for the recipe or click on any image to start the slide show….
- 50 grams (2 ounces) of fresh wild garlic leaves, chopped
- 1 egg
- 50 ml whole milk
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 tsp bread flour
- a pinch of salt
- some grated fresh nutmeg
- olive oil or butter for frying
- Clean the leaves dry them carefully.
- Chop them coarsely.
- Combine all the ingredients in a blender for a smooth batter
- Cover and let the mixture rest for half an hour.
- Melt the oil or butter in a large crepe pan and add the batter.
- Let it cook for about 5-8 minutes over moderate heat.
- Flip the pancake over and cook briefly the other side.
- Plate and serve.