I AM incredibly giddy. There’s a real feeling of spring in the air. Everywhere you look there are signs of life.
Even on a short walk along the hillside from home there’s a palpable sense of Mother Nature getting busy, from the delightful tiny calves wobbling about in the ‘nursery’ field next door, past the swathes of narcissi and daffodils bordering the road to the woodland with trees in early bud.
All around the area cherry trees are announcing the arrival of spring with bucketfuls of sweet pink and white blossoms.
It is heartbreakingly beautiful at times. And, of course, for the cook the arrival of spring signifies one of the bigger changes in the kitchen year.
We are just about ready to put away the casserole dish for the next six months or so – the slow-braised dishes and hearty stews are now at the end of their ‘season’ – and we enter the warmer months with hundreds of ideas for lighter, leafier, greener dishes.
My personal spring alarm clock is the arrival of the first shoots of wild garlic. Long-term readers of my pieces will already know my passion for this beautiful, delicious plant. A walk through a wild garlic patch sets my mind racing with hundreds of potential recipes whizzing around in my mind.
Known as Ramsons, or Bear garlic (apparently wild bears adore digging up the sweet bulbs so I for one am glad that the bears of Kirklees are long gone), the wild garlic plant is a relative of the chive and this is clearly noticeable when you nibble a raw leaf. It has a fresh, clean and quite forceful onion-y taste which dissipates quite dramatically when cooked.
This is quite handy for soups and sauces where the original bite is replaced by a gently savoury flavour. The raw leaves should be treated as a herb, chopped and sprinkled over finished dishes or stirred in at the last minute.
As I picked my first batch of the year last week it was a quite stunning day – cool, fresh and not a cloud in the sky.
The fresh air and general sense of new growth put me in mind of a really clean, fresh dish, full of the flavours of the season.
I imagined iodine-tingling sea air, deep green wild garlic leaf, crisp white wine, a little root vegetable earthiness and a lick of the freshest cream. Perhaps even some crunchy bread straight from the oven, I thought.
At first I was going to try a mussel dish to marry all these ideas together, but at the fishmongers I plumped for a bag of delicious 50p-sized palourde clams instead as I’d not cooked them for years. Mussels would have been just as good. See what’s fresh at the fish counter.
A bowl of seafood like this is one of the most enjoyable meals there is. There’s great fun to be had picking and scooping out all the little clam shells, like hunting for treasure or rock-pooling, the flavour as fresh as you like, tasting of nothing but the sea. And at the end there’s a bowl of sweet, creamy, salty liquor just begging to be soaked up by fresh bread and munched with a few glasses of something crisp and white.
Add a little of the freshest wild garlic and some carrots and celery to provide a bit of a ‘rhythm section’ and here’s spring in a bowl.
So do go out and have a look for some wild garlic. You can’t miss it.
Elegant, emerald leaves, growing between ankle and calf height, releasing that heavenly scent when bruised.
And later in the season they produce carpets of tiny, stellate flowers, which are amazing in salads and sprinkled over ice-white fillets of sole or delicate pink prawns, poached to perfection in a little water and wine. Hungry? Aprons on!
1233kg palourde clams (mussels will do if you can’t find clams)
70g packet of pancetta or diced streaky bacon
1 carrot, very finely chopped
1 stick celery, very finely chopped
2 banana shallots or 1 small onion, very finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 baby leek, washed and thinly shredded
500ml white wine
250ml double cream
A little extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
A handful of fresh wild garlic leaves
50g unsalted butter
A good loaf of bread
A deep pan, big enough for all the clams, with a proper lid
First, clean the clams thoroughly in plenty of cold fresh water, discarding any broken shells. Drain them and set to one side.
In a nice deep heavy-based saucepan gently heat a good splash of oil and cook the pancetta until golden and crispy. Remove the pancetta and drain on a little kitchen paper.
Add the shallot and celery and cook gently until softened. Then add the carrot, leek and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes, just to soften the garlic’s bite.
Add the pancetta back into the pan and pour in the white wine. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer.
Tip in the clams, pop the lid on and allow the shells to steam open for about five minutes. Quickly chop the wild garlic into shreds and finely chop the parsley.
Remove the lid, turn up the heat and stir in the parsley, the cream and the butter.
When it’s all bubbling nicely, check the seasoning (you won’t need much salt, if any, but a good grind of fresh black pepper is essential) and tip the clams into a large bowl. Strew the shredded wild garlic over the top.
Serve immediately with a good crisp white wine (this is one of the few times it’s fine to drink ice-cold Muscadet, but I’d prefer a Loire or Bordeaux sauvignon blanc) and a good loaf.
Do remember to discard any shells that are ‘clammed’ shut! Bon appétit!