When we farmed in East Sussex, there were a couple of rather scrubby woods, remnants of the Wealden forest that nobody had thought worthy of reclaim. In late spring there would be plenty of bluebells in the banks of dried-up riverbeds and punctuating any little hillocks. Most of the woodland floor, however, was covered by a plant with broad, deep-green leaves, pretty lily of the valley-like flowers and a powerful and pungent aroma. Thus I became acquainted with ramsons, or wild garlic.
In those early days I was a country cook and a bit of a forager – not in the modern sense of finding value where once were seen mere weeds but in the more common way of finding recognisable food in the wild. We would pick field mushrooms with big flat caps that oozed rich black juice when fried with eggs and bacon for a weekend breakfast. There were always bits of rough game – pigeons and rabbits mostly – being shot by someone round and about. There were blackberries, nettles, sorrel and horseradish and, in the spring, there were ramsons.
Once I had overcome a certain repugnance to the forceful stench of them, I started to use a few leaves, finely shredded, in the odd soup or stew. A wild rabbit, cut in pieces and braised gently with cider, onions and a few leaves of wild garlic, was excellent fare after a couple of hours in the slower oven of the somewhat erratic Rayburn stove.
Despite all this, however, I was surprised when, a couple of decades later, these leaves began appearing – frequently whole, uncooked and somewhat unpalatably – on plates in London restaurants.
The fact is that wild garlic can add great value but, as with most powerful aromatics, a little moderation – and the action of heat – is required. Here is another robust and faintly rustic application. We used to call it a Spanish omelette. Now it is a tortilla. Or a frittata. Or an eggah, or even a kuku. It is certainly a good lunch.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Tortilla with wild garlic
This makes lunch or supper for at least four but is also good cut into smaller wedges as party food.
500g large potatoes
100g pancetta or other fatty bacon, in a block if possible
2 cloves garlic
10 leaves wild garlic
Salt and pepper
● Peel the potatoes and cut them into cubes of roughly two centimetres. Cover with cold water and a pinch of salt, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or until they are just cooked if still a little firm to the bite. Drain and allow to cool.
● Cut the pancetta into thin strips. Place it in a heavy frying pan and let it render in a tablespoon of olive oil over a low heat. Peel and slice the onions and add them to the pan once the pancetta has rendered its fat and started to colour. Add the peeled and chopped garlic and let this mixture stew gently, adding more oil if necessary, until the onions are soft and translucent.
● Wash the wild garlic and shred it finely. Add it to the onions in the pan and let it soften in turn. Add a bit more oil and then the potatoes with a good seasoning of salt and milled pepper and let this whole ensemble stew until the potatoes are perfectly tender. Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk well with a little more salt and pepper. Turn the heat up on the pan and pour in the eggs, stirring well and making gaps so that the eggs can seep down through the mixture.
● There are two basic methods of finishing the dish. It can be turned out on to a large flat plate or similar and then slid back into the pan; this is the “flip” method that some would say defines a tortilla. Alternatively it can be finished under the grill or in the oven and then turned out on to a plate. Some people even bake the whole thing in a springform tin, a practice that I find odd, as it must be difficult to get any colour on the omelette without seriously overcooking it.
● The end result should be served in wedges at room temperature with a nice salad.
Rowley’s drinking choice
The usual egg rules apply. No wine is ideal but an omelette without a glass of wine is a lonely thing. Young fresh reds work best in my view.
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