There are some incredible accounts in the online and published literature on foraging of how difficult it can be getting plants to make the leap from edible to palatable. Even the already-converted find many of them: too bitter; too woody; too ‘planty’ (a pathetic-sounding but genuine complaint); too aromatic; too fiddly; too gritty; too sour; too starchy; too astringent; too pungent – there is a whole systematic of negative descriptors to be fought against when working with many wild and foraged ingredients. Finding a faultless and abundant wild edible feels like hitting the mesolithic luxury products isle, and at this time of year in very specific places, there is none better than the few-flowered garlic (Allium paradoxum). Hence the decision to do something a little different with this post.
For a short time during the spring in my region of Berlin Brandenburg, entire hectares of the woods are carpeted with the plant, a non-native onion from the Caucasus whose growth is more than ideally suited to the north-east German climate. Its succulent, crunchy leaves have a flavour somewhere between spring onion, garlic and shallots. It’s a leek, it’s an onion, it’s a garlic – hence the general lack of agreement on its common English name. The bulbs are small and pack a little more garlic heat than the leaves, and it would be clear to most that salads, soups, herb salts and pestos (pesti?) are the orthodox ways of preparing it. But catching the plants at the right time this year, I was much more interested in the paradox that sits at the end of its flowering spike.
Looking at first like an unopened ramsons (A. ursinum) flower, the white bud of few-flowered leek turns out to be a membrane containing several bulblets and generally one tightly-rolled white flower. I’ve found them in various forms and stages of opening, with the bulbils already fully-developed and bursting from the membrane. The plant is vigorous beyond control and is in no danger of being manually over-harvested, and so masses of fresh greens can be taken with impunity. The bottom of your sack is invariably then full of these tiny bulbils having come loose from the flower spikes. And doing something with them seemed like the most fun.
Such an abundant and generous green had to be coveting at least one use that would require hours of painstaking preparation, some labour of love that would yield a tiny (and therefore covetous) bounty. That’s just how wild edibles seem to be. Therefore after processing the leaves for the usual pesto I got down to shelling the flower-spikes for their tiny pearls, in order to make a truly wild leek caviar, which seemed to make immediate sense, as only the most expensive caviar in the world (Almas or white Beluga) is as pearly as the fruits of the few-flowered leek. A bin-liner sized sack produced less than a few grams of viable bulbils, hence the decision to adulterate the product with the unopened flower-heads. Mixed simply with olive oil, sea salt, pepper, and chili flakes, I wondered what terrible privations the future foraging parvenu would undergo to get hold of few-flowered garlic caviar:
There are also other ideas for gourmet scavengers: the Belgians seem to be mad about hop shoots. It appears that the first hop harvest of the year from the hop-yards of Flanders can be sold at the price of 1000€ per kilo. That’s a pretty good mark-up. The first wild hop harvest of my year produced around five hundred grams of fresh shoots, now steeping in herb vinegar, which turned a kind of raspberry vinegar colour after the first hour in the jar. A Dutch website suggested Bloemkoolpuree med winterpostelein, being cauliflower puree and spring beauty (Montia perfoliata), as accompanying sides.