Every few months, I make a trip to visit dear friends and winemakers in the Loir-et-Cher region of the Loire Valley. Along with catching up with people I love and enjoying a break from the city, this is also an opportunity to see what's happening in the vines.
Participating in the vendanges, or grape harvest, last year got me hooked on the fascinating responsibility that is cultivating grapevines with the goal of making natural wine. Every season brings changes among the vines and different ways to accompany the plant to assure a healthy and robust autumn harvest.
This winter, Laurent and Noella were kind enough to let me try my hand at pruning the vines, which I got to resume on a recent trip to the vineyard, during which I also learned "pliage", or folding, in which large canes or branches of vines are tethered to a wire to encourage an optimal grape yield. I'll write more about all this in a later post- because those lessons learned deserve their own space.
Seasonal visits to the Loire reveal not only changes in the grapevines, but in the environment all around them. An added bonus to working among the vines is the time spent roaming the forests and fields looking for wild edible plants.
In the winter we took pruning pauses to look for wild mushrooms hidden among the leaves on the forest floor. We brought Chantrelle and Black Trumpet mushrooms back by the basketful and made hearty homemade meals from our daily haul.
My early April visit brought a new scavenger hunt, focused on the bright green shoots that announce the arrival of spring. Among the most prevalent edible wild plants at this time of year is Ail des Ours, also known as Ramsons, Wild Garlic, or Bear's Garlic.
Ail des Ours grows wild in deciduous forests with moist, slightly acidic soil. The height of the season is when the plants begin to flower just before the forest trees start to leaf. Both the leaves and the flowers are edible, the former have a sharp, concentrated garlic taste and the latter possessing a more subtle flavor.
There are many options for preparing fresh Ail des Ours- the leaves can be used in a tossed salad or lightly sauteed with other greens. Laurent suggested pickling the flower buds, which should be done a little later in the season, when they are just about to flower.
Another simple recipe is Wild Garlic Pesto. I use the term "recipe" lightly here, since ingredients and measurements will depend on how much wild garlic you can find in the woods or at the market, what ingredients you have on hand and ultimately, what tastes good to you.
Below is a basic recipe to get you started. Variations can include adding radish or carrot greens, using different dried nuts or seeds, or including other foraged plants- like early spring nettle leaves, which will add a bitterness and earthy flavor to your pesto. Adapt measurements and ingredients as you go, modifying to taste.
If you can make the time, it's great to prepare a huge batch of this pesto in an afternoon. Prepare reusable glass jars to keep, or gift, your fresh, seasonal pesto!
Wild Garlic Pesto
Makes about 1 cup (250 ml)
3 cups (50 grams), Wild garlic leaves (and flowers if desired) washed and chopped
1/4 cup (25 grams), Dried nuts or seeds- such as pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, almonds
1/2 cup (50 grams), Parmesan cheese, grated
1 cup (235 ml), Olive Oil
Salt, to taste
Combine wild garlic, nuts or seeds, and parmesan in an electric mixer. Add about two tablespoons of olive oil before closing the lid. Begin mixing your pesto, slowly adding olive oil as you go, until you reach the desired consistency. Stop and taste often, adding salt as needed. The pesto is done when it tastes good to you.
Serve immediately with pasta or spoon into glass jars if saving for later. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for longer.