There was a large beech tree near where I grew up. One of the lower boughs bent down to the ground, forming a bouncy wooden seat that provided hours of childhood entertainment. Some kids had carved their names high among the branches. We called it the “graffiti tree”. But in springtime, it had a different appeal. For a few months each year, beginning in early March, the tree was surrounded by a pungent carpet of wild garlic.
The clumps of spear-like green leaves are one of the first signs that spring is here, an early gift of nature at a time when very little that is edible grows in this country. I always seize upon its arrival with enthusiasm, throwing it into omelettes, soups, risottos, pestos and pasta sauces, stuffing it under the skin of chickens and wrapping it around fish. At some point along the line, it also usually ends up in a bowl of mussels like the one below.
The flavour is pretty feisty if you eat it raw, but once cooked, it has a leek-like sweetness that is very different from the cultivated bulbs. I always think of it as a kind of aromatic spinach, a source of subtle flavour rather than a sledge-hammer.
Wild garlic grows best in damp settings, usually under trees and particularly in the west of Britain. It’s pretty easy to recognise – the smell alone should give it away — but don’t pick it unless you know exactly what you’re doing. People have occasionally been known to mistake it for lily of the valley, which is poisonous. If you don’t have an opportunity to pick your own, it is often sold at farmers markets and, increasingly, good greengrocers.
4 big handfuls of wild garlic leaves (about 100g), washed
2 large banana shallots (echalions), peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
2kg mussels, debearded and scrubbed (discard any that are cracked or don’t slowly close when vigorously shaken for several seconds)
Roughly tear ¾ of the wild garlic leaves into 4-5cm lengths; finely shred the rest. Put both to one side, keeping them separate.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the shallot, chopped garlic cloves and bay leaf, cover and sweat gently for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are soft, but not brown. Sprinkle in the paprika and chilli flakes and stir for a minute more.
Add the cleaned mussels, white wine and roughly torn wild garlic, then cover with a lid and turn up the heat. Give the pan a good shake and cook for 3-4 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Discard any that don’t.
Using a slotted spoon, scoop the mussels and wild garlic leaves into a big bowl and put to one side, leaving the liquid in the pan. Add the cream to the juices and bubble away for a minute to thicken slightly.
Return the mussel mixture to the pan, fold in the shredded wild garlic and stir for minute or so, just to warm through. Divide the mussels and sauce between four bowls. Put a larger bowl in the middle of the table for people to jettison their empty shells. Eat the mussels, then the juices, using bread or toast to sop up the last few drops.