At this time of the year, if you happen to be in Wales, you can walk in the woods near the Ocean without smelling the sea at all. Coastline in Wales is stunning. I had no idea before going there. It has not much to envy to the beautiful Irish coastline, but is much less known outside the UK. I used to live at the doorstep of an assortment of cliffs, sand beaches, pebbles beaches, peninsulas, tidal caves. From home in half an hour I could choose between five or six different beaches, all facing different directions so I was guaranteed to always get a lot of wind (I never managed to actually avoid it ). I was spoilt by the choice of walks, some in the open, others in the woods. The woods are particularly luscious and magnificent: the mild climate allows for an almost tropical quality of nature, always green, with many imported species who have successfully adapted, including little bamboo bushes. The open parts on the other hand are wild moors covered by heather and thorny bushes, where lazy sheep graze the grass and the wind always blows.
Normally the smell of the ocean is subtle, but it is always there. The water level has a huge tidal excursion: the first time I came there, the sea was nowhere to be seen and all I could see was a pool of mud extending for kilometers. A bit of a depressing sight, actually. I then got used – more or less – to the tide variation, even though occasionally we did underestimate how high the tide would reach, and how quickly, and we had to take long detours on our way back. We never got stuck by it though, luckily – it can be a dangerous thing indeed, every year someone dies by underestimating the tide and the currents that come with it.
But in this period, it is impossible to smell the sea, or the earth – the still almost bare woods are covered by a dark green, beautiful carpet of wild garlic, speckled here and there by white flowers. This little elegant plant comes right after the daffodils are out and together with the bright bluebells. Later, when other bigger plants sprout, the garlic wilts and sleeps, waiting for another explosion the next year.
You can also find wild garlic in Italy and allegedly in Germany. I saw it in Italy, but not here: it is an endangered species in some areas and you are not allowed to pick it everywhere. Extinction is not a threat in Wales, I think.
We picked some wild garlic last year, but despite its very strong smell, it was almost tasteless. I think it could have been a mistake blanching it, retrospectively. Or maybe, as it often happens with herbs that grow in front of the sea, it was just less flavourful.
This year I bought instead a small bunch of a herb at the market called bärlauch – I had no idea of what it was until I googled it and I discovered it was wild garlic. I was a bit disappointed – it had no smell whatsoever, also when I broke one of the leaves. I am usually quite good at recognizing plants, and I can pick up wild garlic without any doubt about its identity in the wilderness, but seeing the neatly tied bunches at the market, they misled me completely. I decided to use it to dress a pasta I made for a picnic. Imagining it would barely have a flavour, like the previous year’s one, I paired it with a rich vegetable ragout, made with what was left from last week’s shopping at the farmer market (crunchy white asparagus, fresh cultivated mushrooms, a nice leek, and a couple of too old artichokes coming from Italy – I can never resist them). With the wild garlic I made a quick pesto. When I poured the sauce over the pasta - surprise! It was much stronger than the other poor vegetables… But still, the pasta was very nice. And wild garlic is a wild thing indeed to cope with.
If you are a garlic hater, consider that wild garlic does taste of garlic, of course, but it has no bitter or acid aftertastes that often come with it. Even if the flavour is intense, it will not kill your breath for a week. If your garlic is very strong you can probably blanch it before whizzing it, but when I did so with the Welsh one, it turned out completely tasteless. Next time maybe I’d give it a try though with the super German one!
Tortiglioni with spring vegetables and wild garlic pesto
Ingredients: (serves 4)
small bunch of asparagus
a handful of mushrooms
a leek, white part
1 tablespoon butter
400 gr tortiglioni (or substitute with any short format of pasta, eg penne)
small bunch of wild garlic leaves
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 tablespoon olive oil
Heat a large pan of water for cooking the pasta. Wash the vegetables. Slice the leek and start cooking it in a wide pan with the butter. Peel the asparagus if needed, and cut the hardest part in small rounds. Add them to the leeks but save the points for later. Clean the artichokes (see here for a more detailed description), slice them thinly and add them to the pan. Slice the mushrooms and add them as well. If needed wet the ragout with a bit of the water for the pasta. When the water boils, add some salt in it and cook the pasta. Meanwhile keep checking the ragout: when all the vegetables are almost cooked, add the asparagus points. Adjust salt and pepper.
Whizz the garlic leaves with pine nuts and oil. Add a little salt and a little pasta cooking water to obtain a runny sauce.
When pasta is still very al dente, drain it and add it to the ragout with a bit of cooking water. Let it cook for a minute or so until the water is absorbed. Turn the heat off, pour the pesto on top, mix well. It is very good both hot and cold.