It is said that the appearance of the first tender shoots of wild garlic heralds the start of spring. Admittedly, it's not the start of spring any more – we are now well into what I like to call "the season of green" – but if you walk even just a little way into the woodland, you'll not have to go far to find wild garlic, or its lesser-known cousin: wild leek. There's a cemetery near my house in Edinburgh that has wild leeks in abundance, and it seems to be just about everywhere else at the moment including the fringes of cycle paths, river banks and hedgerows.
In my restaurant days I was familiar with these wild alliums as they were regularly supplied by our forager who would come to the restaurant twice a week with a variety of greens for sale. I would inevitably venture out to find wild garlic myself at some point, too. It's reasonably common and can usually be found growing near water. There's a long section of river bank near my parents' that is literally carpeted with the stuff by this time of year, and I've enjoyed using it to add a green garlicky punch to many a salad, soup or pasta sauce.
The leeks are invading
Wild garlic is one of the most intense, remarkably flavoured wild foods available and it's justifiably famous. Wild leek, however, is less well known but usually much easier to find. A friend of mine refers to them as "invasive leeks" because they're so abundant. After reading up about them on my favourite online foraging guide wildfooduk.com, it turns out that wild leeks are actually a non-native invasive species listed under Section 9 of the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act, meaning that it's illegal to plant or to help spread them. So they're officially in abundant supply! The good news is, they're also rather tasty.
The few-flowered leek
There are two species of wild leek that are quite similar and easily confused. They're both edible and delicious though, so it doesn't really matter if you get them mixed up. There's the three-cornered leek and the few flowered garlic (a.ka. few-flowered leek), the latter of which is probably the most invasive and therefore the easiest to find. They develop fruit – little round garlicky capsules – on the stem just below the flowers, which have a slightly unpleasant gummy texture when you bite them, so I advise discarding these. When you pick them, pull from the base of the plant and try to get the bulbs from the ground, too, as that's the sweetest part.
Both of the wild leek varieties taste similar to wild garlic, but a bit less garlicky – like an extra punchy spring onion. The list of culinary uses is almost endless. Simply sautéed in butter they would be a great accompaniment to any fish or meat, chopped up they make a great addition to a stir-fry, if fermented they would make a great general purpose seasoning for stews and sauces, or you could make a powerful and fresh-flavoured pesto. They're free, fresh and tasty. What's not to like? If you need any more reasons to start eating wild leeks, remember that they're invading habitats and out-competing other species so you'd be doing a favour to all the other plants!