Our sense of smell is a much maligned piece of apparatus. A steady cocktail of booze, fags, spicy food and petrol fumes has dented the city dweller’s ability to compete with the dogs and cats for olfactory clues to urban treats. We might be able to detect a nearby chippy, but are we still able to use the chemical receptors in our faces to locate nature’s goodies?
Many will already be familiar with the stench of an expanse of wild garlic, their green spear leek leaves swaying in the breeze like so many pungent windsurfers. If you’re lucky, you might even find a patch in an urban area under some bushes or in a secret bit of shade. So don’t necessarily assume that that waft of allium aroma you might detect on your way to the shops is a recently opened bag of crisps, nor an unhygienic jogger who has just
passed you on the pavement.
If you follow your nose up the correct nearby street, you might be lucky enough to find a bunch of these prolific leaves starred with pretty white flowers, all stinking to high heaven.
These can be put to creative use, as John Wright suggests, in pastas and pestos, or even as vine-leaf substitutes for a type of dolmades, Anglo-style. Those who wish to become more heavily infused may even use them raw in salads or sandwiches. Personally, I think a slight bit of cooking is needed to take the edge off and to stop yourself from becoming a complete pariah.
Mother Nature, in her wisdom, gave plants a multitude of different tastes for various different reasons. Everyone knows that tomatoes taste like they do for use in ketchup, and that potatoes were designed to be easy to cut into chips but the garlic taste and odour (from the sulphur compound allicin) is supposedly meant to be so strong and peculiar that it can ward off potential predators.
To some extent, this has worked. Much livestock is repelled by it and even the humans who used to live on these isles didn’t care to try it until fairly recently. Although it must’ve been available to previous generations, it was left as something which Europe and further afield obsessed with and therefore was xenophobically bundled in to the peculiar habits of our Gallic cousins. While fighting Napoleon in Spain, Richard Sharpe (Sean Bean) uses the smell of the enemy as a ranging tool: he advises a bunch of new recruits to hold their fire until they can smell the garlic.
Though by no means gastronomic philistines, my grandparents are also living proof of an era of English garlic aversion. They met each other in Trieste at the end of the war and bonded over a mutual hatred of the garlic plastered all over the local cuisine. I cannot imagine that their initial dates would have got very far had only one of them embraced the flavouring. Therefore, they are also living proof that opposites aren’t always compatible.
At least now garlic, along with onions, seems to be one of the few ingredients which is ubiquitous throughout western and eastern cuisines, which is a bit of a double-edged sword for the wild garlic and its defence mechanism. On the one hand, a multitude of exciting new forms are farmed, prized and enjoyed across the world; on the other, it makes for an unstealthy plant. Its smell hardly gives it a low profile and is often a dead giveaway, even for the novice. In fact, the smell even functions as a defence mechanism for our benefit, helping to distinguish the wild leaves from poisonous impostors like Lily of the valley. It also helps with vampires too, of course.
Funnily enough, near my local ramson patch there are a couple of other scented signs towards points of interest for the urban forager:
One is the unmistakable aroma of spray-paint, hemp and dreadlocks. This points to a nearby squat, where enterprising individuals have recycled an empty pub into a working abode. This is surely urban foraging at its peak: finding neglected bits of the city and putting them to better use. At its best, they are living the dream of not having to deal with landlords, letting agents or mortgages; at its worst, they will be moved on at short notice by bailiffs to source another habitat, in the empty shell of another building, somewhere else.
And my last sniffable treasure can be found behind the supermarket. Unlocked bins regularly feature perfectly good items which badly organised computer systems have designated fit for landfill. I defy anyone not to be disgusted at the amount of bread, fruit & veg and perfectly edible packaged items which are thrown away every day, by every supermarket, in every town in the country. While we wait for legislation to address this widespread crime, we can take a bit of power back by treating these castaways as another form of nature’s ample abundance. It just might not seem like it at first. Just like having a hosepipe ban during torrential rain, we fail to see nature’s provision because of yet another instance of man’s chronic mismanagement towards his fellow man.