28 April 2015

Wild garlic pesto

Visiting my parents at the weekend, we decided to go for a walk in the woods. My mum was keen to see bluebells. I was keen to pick wild garlic. My dad is an artist, and there’s a wonderful little wood near his studio that we thought would fit the bill.

April is a lovely time of year for a walk in the woods. The trees are just starting to put on leaf growth, and lots of light floods onto the forest floor, which is a riot of verdant green and wild woodland flowers, primroses, wood anemones, forget-me-nots and bluebells, all of which put on their show before the trees’ leaves shade the forest floor for another summer. By the end of April, wild garlic is coming to the end of its season, but is particularly easy to spot once its starry white flowers appear. 

Gratuitous bluebell photo
The wood we went to was certainly good for bluebells, huge swathes of which covered the forest floor in a mass of purple and blue and filled the air with their scent. Of the wild garlic there was not a sign, until after about 40 minutes I spotted a small clump by the side of the path. We picked a few leaves, but then carried on, my mum promising us that there was a much larger patch nearby. Sure enough, a few minutes later we came across a small brook, the banks of which were covered in an abundance of wild garlic plants. My mum, Mrs Room for a Radish and I set to work picking, and quickly filled three carrier bags. This was far more than we really needed, but I find when foraging the urge to carry on picking is a strong one. (I am the same at pick-your-own fruit farms, which has led to some marathon jam-making sessions.)

A great thing to do with wild garlic, particularly if you have a glut, is to make wild garlic pesto. I like to use wild garlic in a way that keeps its fresh garlicky flavour, but without the pungency that comes with eating the leaves raw. Processing the leaves into pesto achieves that fine balance. This recipe will fill about three medium-sized jam jars. It can easily be adjusted to create a smaller amount. (With thanks to Gerald Roser of the Mirabelle in Eastbourne, who planted the kernel of this recipe in my mind during a discussion we had on growing and cooking wild garlic).


Approx 1 carrier bag wild garlic leaves (you can use some flowers too)
100g pine kernels
100g parmesan cheese or grana padano
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Approx 100ml extra virgin olive oil


If you intend to keep the pesto for some weeks, first sterilise some jam jars (instructions for which can be found here). Allow the jars to cool completely before filling with pesto.

Pre-heat the oven to approx 180C. When the oven has come to temperature, toast the pine nuts on a baking sheets for about 4-5 minutes until very lightly browned. If you cover the baking sheet in a single layer of pine nuts, there should be no need to turn them. Don’t let them go too brown, as they can rapidly become bitter.

Squeeze the lemon and roughly grate the parmesan.

Meanwhile, fill a sink with very cold water, and add the wild garlic. Wash the wild garlic, and pick out any rogue leaves, blossom etc that have made their way in. As with anything foraged, make sure you positively identify all the leaves you use. Washing the leaves in standing water rather than under a running tap will help preserve their colour in the final pesto. 

Wild garlic leaves
Once the leaves have been washed, dry them in a salad spinner to remove any excess water. You may need to do this in batches.

Purists often make pesto in a pestle and mortar, but I find this very time consuming, except when making the smallest of amounts. A food processor is much quicker. The argument against using a food processor is that the heat from the motor can start to cook the pesto. This can be avoided if you use the pulse function, blitzing the leaves in small bursts, and stop as soon as they have been cut into small pieces.

Start by blitzing the pine kernels and cheese to break them down a little, add the lemon juice, some wild garlic leaves and some oil, and blitz until you have a coarse paste. Add a little more oil as you blitz. The paste should have a good coating of oil, but you are not trying to create an emulsion. You may need to blitz the leaves in a few batches. If you do this, fold all the batches together at the end to ensure an even distribution of cheese and pine kernels. 

Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary. I find a little of both helps.

Pack the pesto into the sterilized jars, packing down well to remove any air pockets. Leave about 1cm of space at the top of the jar, and carefully wipe any pesto off the rim of the jar. Cover the pesto with at least 0.5cm of olive oil. The pesto should keep in the fridge for several weeks so long as it is well covered in oil. 

Wild garlic pesto
Use wild garlic pesto as you would basil pesto. My favourite thing is to have it with home-made tagliatelle. There’s something wonderfully simple yet luxurious about home-made pesto with home-made pasta.

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