A COUPLE of weeks ago, a patch of soil in the garden started showing signs of life. Between the weeds and fallen leaves poked the early shoots of those unmistakable bright, delicate green leaves.
Wild garlic season had arrived. And the little patch I'd picked from a local woods and transplanted to my own patch of garden had alerted me to this joyous marker of the incoming Spring.
Anyone who knows me, knows I can be a bit fickle when it comes to food. Prone to brief yet intense love affairs with different foods, I'm smitten before something else comes along, entrancing me and making me forget everything that came before.
But this isn't a flash in the pan. Foraging, food for free, wild food – call it what you will - is something that once it takes its hold, never lets you go.
Mushrooms, seaweed, forgotten vegetables, hedgerow fruit and apples, plums and pears in trees. They're all there waiting to be picked and I've had my fill. Making sloe gin in Weymouth (and crying when my mum, thinking she was tidying up, mixed together all the different bottles I'd meticulously been experimenting with different techniques and ingredients). Making chutneys and jams and jellies. Finding huge ceps with West Dorset forager John Wright, we later fried with garlic and cream and devoured on toast.
They're all brilliant. But there's something about wild garlic that's got me by the throat unlike any of those before.
Why? For one, it's free. When picking a patch in a local woods, hearing conversations of people walking by but hidden from them by the trees and bushes, it's as though I'm privy to this secret treasure chest overflowing with hidden bounty.
It's finding it too. Looking for it, as I did a week ago, and eyeing any new leafy growth wonderingly, sure it's not wild garlic but still having a rub and sniff of the fingers to check for that unmistakable scent. But it's not what you're looking for.
And then you see it. Of course that's it! Hidden in plain sight. You know. When you see it – you know immediately this is what you've been looking for, and laugh you could've mistaken anything else for it.
And once you've gotten the eye for it, you see it everywhere. You can identify it from 100ft, as though suddenly bestowed with Terminator vision that eliminates everything but wild garlic from your vision.
Then there's the smell. First there's nothing and then...the gentle garlicky oniony scent hits your nostrils before it builds and builds until you can't smell anything else. Pick a bunch, and spend the rest of the journey home wondering if your fellow bus passengers can smell it as strongly as you can.
But most of all it's the taste.
Maybe it's its transience, but to me wild garlic is the most delicious of all the alliums.
There isn't the harshness of raw bulb garlic, with all the flavour. And it bestows such a beautiful freshness to dishes; a green-ness that really lifts and declares, 'Spring is here, it's going to be OK. This is what hope tastes like.'
You can have it raw and it won't blow your head off; cooked it lends a beautiful background to a dish.
I've gone mad on it this year. I probably stink of the stuff. I've sniffed but can't detect it on my skin, though maybe because my smell receptors are now immune.
And this year, I've experimented with it more than I ever have. I had to – the compulsion to pick a bunch is so strong that I can't help sneaking into a patch when I should be heading elsewhere.
Salsa verde with a great friend, made from the first patch of the year we'd found towards the end of a fruitless walk. We'd nearly given up, when instead our persistence was rewarded. We had that with a bone-in sirloin and roast potatoes, and was one of the greatest things I've ever eaten. There was a story to it, one that wouldn't have been there with a shop-bought sauce or even once we'd made ourselves with herbs.
Then came wild garlic pesto, which is so good I nearly shed a tear as I ate it with some gorgeous fusilli.
The steeping wild garlic oil is brilliantly emerald green though I'm yet to try it. Cauliflower cheese with chopped wild garlic running through it was a delight – the taste so subtle yet it lifted the creaminess.
Wild garlic risotto with butternut squash was as warming as you'd hope. While Eggs Florentine, the wild garlic wilted in along with the spinach, worked brilliantly. If cooking is about adding layers of flavour, wild garlic is both a strong foundation and the perfect decorative final flourish.
I first fell in love with foraging in Dorset, but my love affair with wild garlic has been entirely lived out in London.
If there's a woodland near you, have a look armed with photographs of wild garlic and see if you stumble across some. It's found in patches – though sometimes there's just a sparse collection of shoots – and the leaves are a bright green. They're very soft to touch, and are feather shaped. Later, they've develop a seed pod that will burst open with a bright white round collection of little white flowers.
And of course, the smell. They smell unmistakably of garlic. If you're unsure whether the thing you're holding is wild garlic, it probably isn't.
Pick responsibly. Go for the bigger leaves, and use scissors to cut the stems rather than risk pulling up the roots. And leave the tiny leaves to grow, to nourish the seed pods that will ensure the patch for future years, and other people's joy.