The Leaning Tower of Pesto (wild garlic again)

Zeb on the Wild Garlic Trail

The south-west and west of England are a good place to find wild garlic (allium ursinum) though I have seen it growing along the banks of the River Cocker in Cockermouth, tucked in the damp trough of the old Mill Race.

Mill Race At Cockermouth

If it likes a spot it will surely but slowly colonize the ground. It likes damp and it likes light dappled shade, and it comes into flower more or less as the trees start to leaf up, though you can pick the leaves much earlier in the year when it first emerges.  Once the canopy has filled out and the trees are in full leaf overhead,  the leaves shrivel and the wild garlic plants set seed and vanish for another year. You can also buy bulbs from suppliers on the internet if you want to try growing it in your garden.

Garlic Slopes

I first came across it many years ago as a student when I walked from Wooton-under-Edge to Bath on part of the Cotswold Way with two friends, much fitter and light of foot than me. It was a hot weekend and I was glad to get out of the bright sunshine in the cow pastures and bridleways and walk through a cool green wood for a time.  The pungent and distinctive smell of garlic was everywhere, starry white flowers drifting up the slopes, with bluebells and cow parsley layered in.  I remember wrinkling my nose and saying, ‘But that’s garlic!’  I think I thought then that garlic only grew in warmer Mediterranean countries.

Garlic everywhere

The memory stayed with me for many years and when I moved to Bristol eight years ago and found it growing in almost every damp woodland here I researched it, realised it was edible and now pick some every year to use in my cooking. It has become very trendy and fashionable and is sold at farmers’ markets in London and around the country.

 If you were in one of these woods in January you wouldn’t really believe that come May they can be carpeted with garlic, I reckon it is one of the safer plants for the beginner to pick and eat as the smell of the leaves is so distinctive, having said that bluebells and anenomes are poisonous so do make sure that you can distinguish between them. I have read also that some people confuse lily of the valley with wild garlic. I have never seen them growing together here, but again it is worth bearing in mind. I have some older posts on this blog with close up photos but if you search internet images you should find many photos and descriptions to help you. It is worth noting that the plants do vary in size. The ones we picked yesterday were very big and tall, but the ones I see more locally are shorter and smaller.

one last pic of the wild garlicThe plants die back in the summer and all that are left are the bulbs hidden underground till next year, so it really is very seasonal.

I haven’t picked much this year, just one lot that I used in the semolina bun bread last month and at the weekend on our walk I thought I would grab a dog bag’s worth and make some pesto to put in the freezer as the ‘season’ is almost over.

Wild Garlic Pesto

I can tell you what I did and what I put in it, but I haven’t got really good quantiities for you as I made it by eye and taste.  Pesto is one of those Humpty Dumpty words these days as people seem to put what they like in it, some people leave the cheese out altogether, some people add lemon,  but it is a convenient word so I use it here.

Leaning Tower of Pesto

  • A well packed doggy bag of garlic leaves, flowers and buds, probably 500g or so
  • About 200 g of finely ground Pecorino hard cheese ( a sheep’s milk cheese with a strong taste which I prefer to Parmesan)
  • About 150 g of coarsely ground hazelnuts, I like it a bit chunky! It seems a waste to put expensive pine nuts in there as the garlic taste is so strong I don’t think you would be able to taste the pine nuts to be honest.
  • salt to taste
  • Good olive oil or cold pressed rapeseed oil to blend


We put the garlic in the food processor and added olive oil until the leaves were chopped up, then added the other ingredients and held back on the oil to make a thick creamy paste. I don’t like pesto when it it very oily.

I then spooned it into little 2.5 cm tubs and put them in the freezer. I have read that some people freeze them in ice cube trays and then pop them out and store them that way, but it is one more process and I am a lazy person!

I had held back a handful of leaves and Brian made this wonderful dish which we had for supper with the Black Badger peas that I had cooked a few weeks back and frozen.

The Black Badgers have quite coarse skins but these seem to have softened up in the process of being frozen and defrosted and I think they are fantastic.

Brian came up with this which reminded me of really good hippy food from the 1970s and 80s -think Cranks, and Food For Thought and the Hare Krishna restaurant on Soho Square. We ate them with a piece of Cumberland sausage and some pita bread and some steamed purple sprouting broccoli.

Black Badgers with Wild Garlic and Pecorino and Parsley

Brian’s Hippy Cheesy Garliccy Black Badger Peas

  • 250g of well cooked  British Black Badger Peas (bought from Hodmedods)
  • One Medium Onion finely sliced
  • A handful of wild garlic leaves and flowers chopped lightly
  • ½ teaspoon of cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon mixed spice
  • water
  • 100 – 150 g of left over grated Pecorino cheese
  • a handful of roughly chopped flat leaf parsley to finish
  1. On a low heat in a good heavy pan
  2. Sweat the onion in 2 tbps of butter and  a slosh of olive oil till translucent and soft
  3. Add the chopped garlic leaves and stir for a minute or two
  4. Add the Black Badgers to the pan
  5. Sprinkle the spices in and stir well
  6. Add 2 – 3 tablespoons of water to this to stop the BB’s catching on the bottom of the pan
  7. Cover with lid and check from time to time that there is liquid in the pan, top up if necessary, but you only want enough to stop them sticking, not swimming!
  8. Grill your sausage and steam your purple sprouting broccoli for extra vegetabley goodness
  9. Bake your flat breads – I made pita once more, such fun making pita bread so any excuse!
  10. Before you serve, take the pan off the heat add the grated Pecorino and stir in, put the lid back on and leave to melt in and through the dish.

 If you can’t get Black Badgers, you could make something similar with locally grown peas or beans.  They are full of good fibre and protein and often overlooked in favour of perky fresh vegetable;  we lived on dried pulses in years past in this country, survived on them through the winter and the hungry gap when the new crops hadn’t come through yet.

What were the traditional winter foods where you live – before the days of freezers and 24 hour everything available all the time shops?

33 thoughts on “The Leaning Tower of Pesto (wild garlic again)

  1. Celia @ Fig Jam and Lime Cordial

    Oooh it’s wild garlic season again! Whenever you describe this plant, I can almost imagine how it smells. And intriguing that the peas soften up with being frozen, I wonder if that works for blue peas which are also quite tough? B’s hippy delight looks very appealing, as does your pesto stack. Do you find it doesn’t lose its colour as fast as basil pesto? We made some with garlic scapes, and that was certainly the case with those.. xxx

    1. Joanna Post author

      It is late this year because of the weather but very prolific once more. I don’t know about the blue peas Celia, maybe worth a try. I found a tub of last year’s pesto in the freezer when I was putting these away and it seems to have kept its colour really well, a bit paler but not khaki. I think it is a question of freezing it quickly possibly before it oxidises? We found a lovely place where very few dogs go and so it is a lot cleaner to pick than the local patch :)

  2. helenogorman2013

    The pesto looks great. I spotted a small amount of wild garlic on the perimeter of Sefton park near where I live I was surprised because I thought it had to be by running water . It was in dappled shade though. Great idea to use hazelnuts keen to give it a go. By the way I am sending my kD8000 back for inspection as having trouble with weighing small amounts of yeast for long fermentation.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I don’t know quite what the ecological conditions that it needs are, it might be soil type as well?maybe our thick clay soil holds a lot of water here? I have one or two little bits in my garden but they haven’t spread very much. The drawback of those scales is weighing very small amounts on their own. I found that too. I think what I do now is weigh the yeast on top of the liquid or flour and then it seems to cope better. From 0 – 5 g it doesn’t work very accurately does it? I will be interested to hear what they say. I have a problem with the buttons wearing out on mine, but I can’t find the receipt so I have just stuck elastoplast over the one that has worn through. I have had it for about four years now.

  3. hotlyspiced

    That sure is a lot of pesto. I didn’t know garlic could grow in cooler climates. I thought it was very tropical. I haven’t even tried to grow it in Sydney. How lovely to be able to forage – there is nothing more satisfying. I’m sure you will come up with lots of uses for your pesto xx

    1. Joanna Post author

      This variety of garlic has very small bulbs so one doesn’t dig them up, just pick leaves and flowers . I now know that bulb garlic needs a period of vernalisation – a cold month – in order to divide into cloves. I am sure Celia has a friend who grows garlic professionally in Australia. Maybe you have to put in a cold store before you plant it or something? They are only little pots!

  4. Misky

    ¡Ay, caramba! B’s recipe is on my list of must-do-this-soon. I’m in the mood for something like this. Real comfort food. Can’t include wild garlic though, as there’s none growing in this area. We searched high and low last year with no success. I do have an overgrowing patch of chives that must be on growth hormones – I’ll toss some of those in for greenery.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Beware of the cheese sticking to the pot :) have had a look on the Internet and emailed you a couple of poss sites near where you live x

        1. Joanna Post author

          I used a small cast iron le C one and the cheese was a bit stubborn, it came off after a soak overnight :)

  5. heidiannie

    I look forward to garlic / ramp season. And when it is declining the fiddleheads on the Ostrich ferns in my backyard are ready to pick and saute for a wonderful green salad.
    Your pesto looks delicious. Hazelnuts are an interesting exchange- I use walnuts instead of pine nuts. And Brian’s meal/dish is very enticing- I think we ate a lot of bean soup and rice dishes in days of yore. Hard to remember- my son brought over take out Chinese last night- also large in rice dishes. :)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Mmm Chinese I would love a take-away! I don’t know which ferns are edible so I have never picked any here. They are so beautiful when they are all scrolled up. I might have to investigate a bit and see what I can find out :)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Are ramps bigger than these, and you take the whole plant, bulb and all? Or have I dreamt that somewhere. The three cornered leek is one I have never found, though I have read about it – I would like to find it one day. Are you going out for Morels this summer? Are the omens good?

      1. drfugawe

        Yes, they use the whole plant – having not seen or gathered ramps, I can’t tell you what the size is – these wild leeks are about a foot high – usually smaller. Sadly, morels are relatively rare in my parts – but I do love them. Still, when I hear of an area that has recently burned, a frequent happening in Oregon, I go out for a look, since morels interestingly pop up in those areas in spring after a burn. Strange.

        1. Joanna Post author

          I always think wild animals and plants are bigger on your side of the Atlantic. Saw a big white hare one winter in AB, Canada, thought I was in a fairy tale. But I digress as usual. I have had fresh morels only once, they were completely delicious, goes away to dream a little …

  6. ardysez

    Another very informative and enjoyable post, Joanna! No garlic growing here in the outback except for the ‘society garlic’ growing in my flower bed, there to keep the kangaroos from eating things!! Living vicariously through your cooking and outings and recipes, thank you!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Morning Ardys ! it is a very green post, this is the greenest time of year here as you know I am sure. . I have looked up ‘society garlic’ as I wasn’t quite sure what it was. . Ah ha! a pink agapanthus! We only have slugs and snails eating our plants and they haven’t been very active as it has been so cold and dry. Rain forecast for today!

  7. Le Petit Potager

    Joanna, I just went to the website to read about your badger peas they sound lovely!
    Have you tried soaking any dried legumes in kefir, buttermilk or yoghurt whey overnight? it helps to breakdown the outer coat and shortens the cooking time.

    1. Joanna Post author

      No I haven’t tried doing that and it sounds like an excellent idea as I tend to have too much whey always when I make my little pots of kefir cream cheese. I will try that, thank you!

  8. Ann

    I remember lots of wild garlic growing in the woods at my school near Kirkby Lonsdale and have also come across it in Northumberland so it does get about a bit. None here in Western Australia I’m afraid!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I am sure there is more of it about in the North too and I suspect it grows best in ancient woodland, where it is relatively undisturbed. There seems to be less as you go East, but that is anecdotal. I bet there are lots of plants in Western Australia that I have never dreamed of nor will ever see, not to mention the birds and the animals :)

  9. Hasenschneck

    How useful! I was riding through some wild garlic on Sunday and wondering what I could make out of it. I expect it will be all gone by the next time I’m in that wood, although at the rate Spring is progressing in the Quantocks, I may be wrong. Thanks for sharing that.

    1. Joanna Post author

      If it still looks good you should put some in your saddlebags (horse riding?) it is so cold it might have slowed down a bit for you :)

  10. lovinghomemade

    My brother lives in Bath and there really is loads of wild garlic near him! They also have a lot at my kids’ school, apparently the kids eat it during break and go back to lessons stinking of garlic, to the point where the Head has had some of it moved to try and avoid it!

  11. Anne

    Hello Joanna,
    lovely post. I have found a place near my village with wild garlic growing next to white anemones so picked several leaves and flowers today. Did pesto too and like you, I did not want to use expensive pine nuts so replaced them with almonds and 2-3 sundried tomatoes that were waiting in a jar. Wild garlic here in Staffordshire is not even in full bloom yet so with the closed flowers, I tried wild garlic flowers in vinegar to eat in 6-12 months with cured meat. thanks
    Anne MC

    1. Joanna Post author

      Ooh Anne, I like the thought of pickled garlic flower buds – very exclusive, did you pickle in cold or hot vinegar? Lovely that you found some garlic near you. There is lots of a different plant around right now in flower called Jack in the Hedge or garlic mustard, I have never seen so much of it growing everywhere as this year, do you have that one too. I haven’t picked much of it but only eaten the odd leaf as I walk.

      1. Anne MC

        Hi Joanna, the flower heads were pickled with hot vinegar, salt, pepper, coriander and mustard seeds. I have to wait 6 months before trying them. Thanks for mentionning garlic mustard which I will have to try to identify. How is your angelica doing ? mine’s growing very strong so it will be either candied or jam. Anne

  12. Joanna Post author

    Anne I tried to reply via the ipad thing, but I think it couldn’t cope with the photo and we have emailed in between, but here is a pic of the garlic mustard, looks a bit like nettle leaves, but broader and the distribution of leaves on the stem is different and the flower of course is different. Grows in small groups, sometimes singly, on the edges of things, hedges, flowerbeds, sometimes in crevices on stone walls etc.

  13. carla tomasi

    Beautiful pics of garlic and a sprinkling of Zeb most liked!!. The leaning tower of pesto would be a good catchphrase for Italian Tourist Board.xxxxxCarla

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you Carla! I have to confess it was why I wrote the post, I was so proud of my pun :-) I am so bad at making them – I also froze some garlic whizzed with oil in little blobs in an icecube tray – we will see if they keep much flavour or whether it disappears. Lynds said she froze it in thin sheets and then broke it into pieces, It’s all going to seed now out there and very soggy in the rain. xx Jo

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