Growers refer to this time of the year as the “Hungry Gap”. Produce is sparse but, if you know where to look, there are a few gems to be found.
Wild garlic, also known as “bear’s garlic”, “devil’s garlic” and “stinking Jenny” is rampant at the moment.
It grows near water in wooded areas and is free for the picking.
Unlike the bulb variety, you use the broad, verdant leaves. They’re easily identified by their pungent scent and delicate white flowers. Be careful though, the leaves are similar to toxic bluebell leaves so give them a good rub and sniff well to make sure you’ve got the right one.
Pick from a slope too as there’s less chance that a dog has been to visit. When you’ve picked a sufficient amount, wash it well and you’re ready to go. You can eat it raw but there’s a fiery heat to it and it’s outrageously garlicky. Blanch the leaves in boiling salted water for 30 seconds and refresh in ice cold water. Wild garlic pesto is a good recipe to start with. Use a handful of blanched garlic and blend it with a handful of parsley, 50g toasted walnuts, 50g grated parmesan and 125ml Broighter Gold rapeseed oil. Check seasoning and use to spread on toasted artisan bread, with roast chicken, tossed into pasta or with grilled lamb and beef. The possibilities are endless. Wild garlic only has a limited season so enjoy it now while you can.
I’ve tried many ways to preserve it but it loses its punch in the process. When the flowers turn to buds, give them a wash, pat them dry with kitchen paper and place in a jar.
Cover with vinegar – use a few of the buds in dishes to give you that wild garlic scent all year round. My favourite thing to do with wild garlic is to combine it with potatoes and cabbage in a cake and serve it with really good bacon. Peter Hannan of the Meat Merchant in Moira has developed a bacon, smoked over apple and cherry wood that’s pretty much as good as pork will ever get.
Top it off with a duck egg from Ballinteer Farm in Macosquin for a dish that will gladden your heart.
Coinciding with the hungry gap for me is the realisation that I have killed all the herbs in my garden, including the hardy evergreens. This means the, now annual, pilgrimage to Malachy Smyth’s Country Garden Herbs place in Glenullin outside Garvagh. Last week I stocked up on fennel, oregano, mint, angelica, sage, basil, lemon verbena – I’m determined to nurture them this year but will keep you posted. Malachy is having an open weekend today from 9am to 5pm and tomorrow afternoon from 1pm to 5pm.
Buying herbs from a gardener is so much more sensible than buying ready cut and packaged from a supermarket. When you clip them they should grow back giving you an endless supply. Also you’ll find varieties not widely available. Like fresh oregano.
One of my favourite, and simplest sauces, is salmoriglio which originates in Sicily.
Olive oil is warmed with lemon juice and garlic and then fresh oregano and parsley is added.
It adds a dash of sunshine to vegetables, potatoes, grills or as in my recipe, fish.
Hake is a sustainable fish that is caught off these shores and is well worth sussing out for its soft and pearly white texture. The salmoriglio is the perfect accompaniment for it.
Now is the best time to go green, splash out on some herbs or avail of the free ones and fill the hungry gap.