Wild Garlic (Bärlauch)
By Ricky Mills
Wild onions, garlic, chives, mushrooms and the leaves of many plants can be used in a variety of recipes. April is Bärlauch (Wild Garlic) season in Germany, coinciding annually with the weather getting better and many people starting to get out and about in the woods. This wild garlic grows mainly on the shady slopes of hills and valleys where there is plenty of moisture.
As a boy, I grew up near the swampy pine forests and open hardwoods of Upstate New York. The Spring annually brought with it the green of new leaves on the trees and a green carpet of different plants across the forest floor. I would sample some of the plants at different times as a child while out with my Grandfather, Robert O’Connor, cutting and gathering firewood. He seemed to know something about everything that grew in the woods. I was amazed at how he would walk through the forest and simply reach down and harvest a mushroom or pull a plant from the ground by its stalk. He would pull out his pocket knife and cut a portion of it off and pop it in his mouth. I would of course investigate the plant and follow my grandfather’s lead by doing the same. Wild garlic was one of those plants, and I can still remember the smell of the forest when you walked into an area that contained the green leafy plant. The smell still takes me back to my childhood even today.
Figure 1 “Photo” Bärlauch on the forest floor in Germany. We found this wild garlic growing in a swampy wet area of woods.
Now, in my adulthood, I spend a lot of time in the woods hunting, hiking, scouting and just generally enjoying nature. One of the benefits of my time in the woods is my curiosity toward
the wild plants and other things that grow there. Most are seasonal and come and go as fast as the seasons change themselves. A 30 day window is all that you have to get out and enjoy some of these plants and mushrooms many times. As these plants grow and age, their flavor wanes and the texture of the plant will become more fibrous and harder to process, cook and eat.
In Germany, the people gather the young green leaves in baskets and take them home to be used in various recipes. One of those recipes is a homemade pesto. To make the Bärlauch sauce, simply wash and dry the leaves and then grind them up in a mixer. Olive oil is added until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. Some might like it a little more oily and some less oily, but no matter how you eat it, you’re sure to find that the strong flavor of this wild garlic is delicious. The pesto can then be jarred with a little more olive oil poured over the top to keep the green pesto fresh. The jarred pesto needs to be refrigerated until cooked and eaten.
Figure 2 “Photo” The author, Ricky Mills, in the forest gathering Bärlauch (wild garlic) leaves to be used in making a pesto.
The following is a simple pesto recipe that you can try out if you stumble across some Bärlauch in the woods and want to try it out.
1/2 jar Bärlauch pesto sauce
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts,
pecans or walnuts
Pasta of your choice
Fresh lemons sliced in half (ready to squeeze over your Pesto)
Dry roast the nuts in a frying pan. Add to a food processor with the Bärlauch sauce and other ingredients. Process till it becomes a smooth paste and add olive oil till you reach the desired consistency. Add the cold pesto over the hot boiled pasta on each plate. Grated parmesan and some extra dry roasted nuts can be put on top before serving for a nice visual effect. Serve and salt to taste. For a really fresh tasting pesto pasta dish, squeeze a lemon half over the plate of pesto and eat it like that. That gives it a little kick that can make all the difference.
Be careful not to confuse Bärlauch with the Maiglöckchen (Lily of the Valley) which is poisonous. Also the Herbstzeitlose (Colchicum autumnale) can be deadly if you eat it (even after cooking). 1 leaf bears symptoms, 5 leaves can kill you, 10 leaves will kill you. If heating up the leaves (i.e. when preparing a soup), the poison gets stronger. Often the Bärlauch and the lookalikes grow in the same spot. It is crucial to check every single leave when harvesting Bärlauch.
As with many plants and mushrooms, there is almost always a look alike of each that can be harmful if eaten. This is usually what keeps many people from venturing out and trying to harvest any naturally growing plants or mushrooms. You won’t find any mistaken plants in the grocery store produce section. A good place to go and find pictures and descriptions of each, in order to compare them, is the Wikipedia website. Many book stores have books on edible plants that you can find in your area. Make sure you know the difference before you go to the woods.
I have often wondered if the wild garlic in America could be used in the same fashion as the German’s use it over here. It tastes the same as the wild garlic and onions that I ate in the forest as a child. I hope that this year, as you find yourself out and about scouting for turkeys or hiking in the woods, that you stumble across some of these naturally occurring wild plants. This is just one example of how you can take your time in the forest and learn more about your surroundings. Many of the things that we find in the store started out on the forest floor growing naturally. I hope that you can take the time to at least find and identify this plant when you are out enjoying the wild. And who knows, you might just want to try some homemade Bärlauch pesto yourself.
Figure 3 “Photo” Bärlauch, also known as bear’s garlic, is a wild relative of chives. The Latin name (Allium ursinum) is due to the brown bear‘s taste for the bulbs and its habit of digging up the ground to get at them.
References from Wikipedia (updated on 5 July 2012):
1. Maiglöckchen (Lily of the Valley) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lily_of_the_Valley
2. Herbstzeitlose (Colchicum autumnale) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colchicum_autumnale