Thursday, 28 March 2013

If you can't grow, borrow from nature, or; A Recipe for Wild Garlic Pesto

View down the Tyne
So the weather's still crap, have you noticed? I imagine you did, unless you're really good at ignoring these kind of things, or live in an underground compound in which case it seems odd to me that you should be looking at a blog that is nominally about gardening. Going to be growing many leeks in that subterranean bunker of yours? You want to check out one of those survivalist blogs, that'd be far more up your street. Anyway, enough rambling; despite having taken last week off work with the vague hope of finally digging over enough of the plot to plant some seed spuds out, it was too cold and wet. I'm not planting potatoes in snow. The wednesday's forecast was for flurries of white stuff, so I headed out for a cycle before it hit, with the intention of grabbing some wild garlic from the banks of the Tyne. If you can't grow, borrow.
One of the great things about Newcastle is how quickly, by cycling just a couple of miles up the Tyne, slightly grim industrial scenes like the one above give way to more pastoral visages such as this.

And then on to Wylam, where the view back downstream is full-on pretty, even on a dullard of a late winter day such as this.

But the reason for the trip, apart from doing my first significant exercise in a large number of months, was not to gawp at waterways but to check whether the first flushes of wild garlic had seen fit to raise themselves above the soil. Wild garlic, or ramsons as it's often known, is great stuff. I remember the first time I walked through a wood and noticed that the air was heavy with a garlicky reek and, even better, this wasn't coming from some defiantly rural pizzeria, but from a plant that you could pick, for free. Heady times. I've mostly used it to make pesto, added young leaves to salads, or added some chopped leaves to whatever dish I fancy, as you would with spinach. It seems to crop up on more and more restaurant dishes these days as the trends for local and foraged ingredients continue unabated. In Food for Free, Richard Mabey notes that Oliver Rackham enjoys the leaves in peanut butter sandwiches. Odd fellow.

Bike pictured to prove that I didn't take the bus
I was chuffed to find that in spite of winter's vile tentacles reaching further into the year than they have any right, the garlic was up, and in full force. It's pretty easy to spot as it provides a green carpet to the forest undergrowth, often next to rivers.

The leaves have a sort of shield-like shape. If in doubt, rub some between your fingers, there's no mistaking the smell.

I picked a good few handfuls, taking care not to take too much from any one spot, although I have to say there doesn't seem much chance of diminishing the hugely abundant supplies from this area. I resisted the temptation to supplement my garlicky haul with a mushroom side-order, as knowing my luck these are probably deadly toxic.

I cycled home, nearly dieing in the process (tiny headwind putting my non-existent fitness to the test and basically breaking it), but luckily for fans of pesto I managed to survive, and so am now able to relate to you the following recipe.

Wild Garlic Pesto Recipe


  • About 140g of wild garlic leaves, preferably picked from the banks of the Tyne
  • A small bunch of parsley, leaves only.
  • 70g sunflower seeds. A classic pesto would involve pine nuts, but these cost a fortune. Sunflower seeds are fine when toasted and, actually, the earthy flavour suits the wild garlic very well.
  • 50g Parmesan, finely grated. Gotta be Parmesan, Grana Padano won't cut it.
  • About 250ml of oil, half and half extra virgin olive and something neutral like sunflower. If you use just extra virgin it'll be too peppery
  • Squeeze of lemon juice, maldon or other decent salt, pepper.


  1. First, toast those seeds in a dry frying pan over a low-medium heat. Careful they don't burn, unless you actually want to be pissed off, in which case go for it, see if I care. Ideally you want them to look like the above pic.
  2. Stuff your wild garlic and parsley leaves into a reasonably capacious food processor, and blend. Slowly add about half your oil, then the seeds and parmesan, still blending. Now add the rest of the oil, or as much as you need to give a nice thick pesto-like consistency. You don't want it to be too sloppy.
  3. Season with a squeeze of lemon juice, plenty salt and pepper.
That's it, piece of piss eh? After all the effort I went to in order to gather the stuff, it almost seems like I should've made something trickier.

Except that actually, it doesn't, because this stuff is delicious. That night we used the pesto to make a simple pasta, with olives and mushrooms. It tasted like the promise of an earthy but fresh spring day, which given the miserable glum-fest that continues to rage outside all our windows, was just the ticket.


  1. You are brave harvesting wild fungi! I'd not dare eat it. You are still there aren't you?

    1. Ha, no, I steered well clear of the mushrooms! I'd love to go out wandering with a mycologist sometime, but until then I'll stick to what I know for sure.

  2. Sounds and looks delicious. But wait, you were HAPPY the smell didn't come from a rural pizzeria? I guess I can see both sides of the argument, but to me a pizzeria in the woods is just what the hungry walker would need, especially if it is generous with the garlic.

    1. Jason, after a 10 mile cycle a wodge of calzone would've been perfect!


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