I have a craving for greens. Coming out of winter as we are, they’ve never felt more welcome: fresh, herby, with a slight mineral and metallic tang. I’m also feeling adventurous, wishing to explore the wild bounty around us. So I’ve started foraging, to satisfy an additional craving, that of new discoveries.
Armed with a couple of books, Hedgrow by John Wrigt from the wonderful River Cottage Handbook series and Food for Free by Richard Mabey, I began to explore my surroundings. I had been planning a foraging trip this weekend, when the forecast of rain (and two hangovers, to be honest) made me alter my plans. A long trip was out of the question, but foraging wasn’t! In preparation for my expedition, I had been reading up on wild plants, and as a result, started simply scanning my surrounds. I discovered a delicious green right on my doorstep, give or take a few 100 m, and in the city: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).
Incidentally, it was this very plant that stars in the oldest evidence of humans cooking with spices! About 6000 years ago, the ancient Europeans flavoured their fish and meat with the peppery seeds from a garlic mustard plants.
What it looks like
Garlic mustard can grow over 1 m tall. It has triangular, some say heart-shaped leaves, with distinct veins running down them; the upper leaves have jagged edges, while the lower leaves appear more rounded. At the top, there is now a cluster of pretty 4-petal white flowers. Sometimes there is more than one little stalk topped with the flower cluster coming of the top. When crushed, the plant, and especially the leaves, smell strongly of garlic. Interestingly, according to John Wright the plant only tastes of garlic and mustard when crushed, result of certain chemical reactions occurring during the crushing.
At a superficial glance (of which I had been guilty, too), the garlic mustard looks a bit like a nettle plant, with its white flowers and jagged leaves. But on closer inspection, they are totally different! The nettle flowers are narrower, and a little hairy, and the flowers are below the top of the leaves, rather than on top like the garlic mustard’s.
According to my reference books, there are no poisonous look-alikes and all parts of the plant are edible.
In Britain, garlic mustard is also known as Jack-by-the-hedge. Other common names include Garlic Root, Hedge Garlic, Sauce-alone, Jack-in-the-bush, Penny Hedge and Poor Man’s Mustard.
Where to find it
Garlic mustard grows in shady hedges and forests. I found mine on the side of the hill in an urban area. Wright says the season is from March to May. Mabey says it’s common throughout Europe. In the US and Canada, sadly, it is an invasive species with no natural enemies. Originally brought over by in the 19th century by the Europeans as a culinary herbs, it displaced many native plants.
How to eat wild garlic mustard
The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers, stalks, roots, and seeds. The crushed plant tastes of garlic and mustard, otherwise it has a pleasantly herby taste. After all, mustard plants are brassicae, and related to cabbage. I loved the flavours. Here’s how to use garlic mustard:
- In salads. I used the leaves, as well as the flower and soft stalks to add variety. We had it simply anointed with some good balsamic vinegar, and accompanying Cornish yarg cheese and Dalmatian šokol (smoked and cured neck of pork).
- In sandwiches. I used it with pork and beef. Ham would be delicious, too.
- In the past, it was commonly used with mint in a sauce to accompany lamb.
- Use as you would spinach or another tender green.
- See more recipes at the 3 Foragers.