I knew I should recognise the crucifer with pretty white flowers which seemed to be growing along all the paths and hedgerows in Durham but, to my shame, I had to come home and look it up in Rose. Jack-by-the-hedge, Garlic mustard or, more properly, Alliaria petiolata, my book confirmed.
Alliaria petiolata has a plethora of common names, lots of which include the name ‘Jack’. One Dr Prior suggested in his 1879 book, ‘Popular Names of British Flowers’, that this was because of its ‘offensive smell’, like a latrine or Jakes – typical Victorian suspicion of anything as foreign as garlic!
The white flowers seem to be everywhere at the moment so, when I came across it again near Frosterley last weekend, I thought I should see whether it lived up to its name. A little nibble of the youngest leaves certainly left a very sharp taste of mustard and Richard Mabey’s book, Food for Free, confirms that the finely chopped leaves are good in salads or made into a sauce for lamb or fish such as herring – both sounded worth a try.
It took until yesterday, though, to get around to some foraging – there is plenty of garlic mustard to be found within a few minutes from home and I have self-seeded wild garlic under my apple tree. In the end I made a simple pesto, blending a good handful each of garlic mustard and wild garlic leaves with toasted pine nuts, parmesan cheese and good olive oil. Served with gnocchi, this made a very quick and tasty evening meal.
Then, this morning, I was doing a bit of tidying up in the garden, when I found a patch of garlic mustard growing under my apple tree – a welcome addition to the semi-wild area I’m encouraging. I didn’t notice it last year but, then, it’s a biennial plant which take two years to flower so last year’s rosette of basal leaves must just have been less conspicuous.
Interestingly, there is evidence that garlic mustard is one of the earliest plants to be used as a spice in Europe – tiny phytoliths have been found in 6000 year old archaeological remains from Denmark and Germany (Saul et al., 2013). Phytoliths are microscopic rigid silica bodies produced by plants when they take up silicic acid, which have a morphology specific to particular taxa – they can provide evidence about what plants were present, just like pollen grains. Its intriguing to think that, so long ago, hunter-gatherers were interested in plants for their taste as well as just their calorific value.
North Americans, however, are less taken with garlic mustard, introduced as a culinary herb by 19th century settlers. It is now regarded as an invasive weed where, in the absence of natural predators, it has out-competed native plants and become the dominant under-storey species in many areas. While looking for recipes to extend my foraging skills I came across this, subtitled ‘Eat it to Beat it’!
I’m not sure how effective that really is as a control strategy but 13 pages of recipes did inspire me to try a sauce for fried herring for tonight’s dinner!
Saul H., Madella M., Fischer A., Glykou A., Harz S. & Craig O.E. (2013) Phytolith in pottery reveal the use of spice in European prehistoric cuisine. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0070583