Bitter Lessons – Garlic Mustard

It’s a mild start to winter in Berlin, and in the woods the ground is unfrozen two months after it was covered with snow last year. The hardiest of greens are taking advantage of the forgiving temperatures to push up through the forest floor: narrow-leaved dock (Rumex crispus), hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), chickweed (Stellaria media), lesser stinging nettles (Urtica urens). But nothing at this time seemed to be thriving quite like garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

The first bit of proper woodland was carpeted with the glossy, webbed-edged leaves, sprouting in clumps from the gloomy and frosted earth at the edge of the first small pond; everything from the freshest leaflets to mature plants could be found, also those from last year, which were leathery and blackening and seemingly perforated by insects during the still-warm autumn.

In the often fanciful praise of old herbals, in records of plants in folklore, in every foraging guide available encountered at the time of writing, garlic mustard is listed as nothing short of an exceptionally fine green.  After washing the leaves, they were prepared as pesto: shredded, wilted in lemon juice, given a dash of olive oil, salt, pepper, and chopped garlic, then ground in a mortar and pestle. Then left to cool, then tasted – the chalky, overpowering bitterness was there in luckless plenty. Repeated attempts to balance the flavours failed with multiple batches.

Garlic mustard, or Jack-by-the-hedge (Alliaria petiolata)

The literature holds garlic mustard in a very flattering light (at least where the plant is not invasive). With the occasional apologist giving a quick aside to its slight bitter note, most encourage liberal strewing of leaves raw in salads, cooked in a little butter and salt as a side, or similar minimalist approaches, as if to savour the delicate garlicky taste. No writer on the subject of wild food wishes to label garlic mustard as we have (as yet), as many people have experienced it – anything between mildly unpleasant to strongly unpalatable in flavour. Faith in the unanimous opinion of garlic mustard’s virtues – and a similar unwillingness to dismiss its edibility to those who claim it – lead me to assume that I’m overlooking something.

I’d nibbled on the fresh leaves last year and was not at all surprised to find them a little on the bitter side, and found the garlic aroma a little tainted by the lasting aftertaste. These leaves were much as most of the ones harvested for the pesto recipe: webbed but plumply cordate. A closer look at the botanical description reveals that these are first-year leaves, said by many to be by far the most bitter. The more hastate (spear-shaped) leaves are second-year growth, which of course were not then readily available. Could it be that the bitterness is found in the basal-rosette forming leaves, and is more or less absent from the established plant’s new growth?

If you’re thinking ‘why bother?’, there are several reasons. The first is of course ‘why not?’ The second is that, according to John Kallas’s book on foraging, garlic mustard comes out in the nutritional testing as just about the healthiest green you could manage to find, and, seeing as not finding it in mixed woodland would be a far harder task than seeking it out, it is desirable. The third is that the bitter conundrum makes it an interesting case, as I feel we are missing a point that people who commonly knew this plant were very much aware of. And if you’re also thinking ‘who are we?’, well, there are certainly other people on the net who are experiencing the same thing.

With certain reserve, ‘bitter’ flavours have their place in the very finest cuisine. Not being able to get on with the regular level of garlic mustard bitterness is doubly frustrating, as it leads you to think about bitterness in a different light. It’s difficult to accept the presence of at least some experience of bitter flavours in so much wild food as empirical – it would be easier to believe that the almost total exclusion of bitter flavours in our diets serves to exaggerate any real bitterness we come into contact with. Whether this is imagined or not, whether as hunter gatherers we found bitterness in our food as problematic as I am finding it today, is a question each person will no doubt answer differently. Nonetheless, the literature is constant and it is obvious that garlic mustard has been eaten by people whose diet wasn’t exactly a mesolithic one, so what’s the knack?

It’s clear from this experience that relying on foraging literature without having intimate personal experience of the plants you’re dealing with leads to, well, disappointment, and that descriptions of plants are often either incomplete, viewing its properties at only one time of its life-cycle, or the descriptions are lifted from other works, being deemed so often described that a personal study of the plant seems not to be worth the effort. What strikes me every time I think about this problem is that people have gotten around it, probably for centuries, and the reason that this knowledge is nowhere to be found today is simply because it was once constantly in use, and didn’t need writing down. So the garlic mustard experiment goes on. It is now spring, the new growth is appearing.

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