Until a few years ago you would never have seen it on a menu, but these days wild garlic is definitely a chefs' favourite. Jake Watkins, from JSW restaurant in Hampshire, says it's the perfect partner for fish. Michael Raffael reports
About two years ago, wild garlic started appearing on restaurant menus. Another fad? Another flavour of the year soon to be forgotten? Probably not. Of the many ingredients that filter into the mainstream of cooking, it has as good a chance as any of taking root. It is, as the name suggests, wild. It's also seasonal, starting in spring and, so far as the flowers are concerned, finished by mid-summer. What it brings to the kitchen is taste and colour.
The flavour is softer, more pleasant than cloves from garlic bulbs the smell less assertive. Leaves, when blanched and blended to a purée, have a vibrant colour that brings food, especially white fish, to life.
Allium ursinum, also called ramsons, grow all over the British Isles, usually in damp woodland. The Latin name, "bear garlic", may reflect the fact that it appears each year at the time when bears come out of hibernation.
The bulbs are edible, but are better left in the ground. It's the slender leaves that are more attractive to chefs. The white flower spikes are worthwhile, too.
Wherever wild garlic grows, it is usually abundant. At JSW in Petersfield, Hampshire, Jake Watkins sends his chefs to pick it in woods near the town - and they can harvest enough for a week in a few minutes. It's a free natural resource that repays the effort required many times over.
Chefs of the calibre of Michel Bras, Marc Veyrat and, nearer home, David Everitt-Matthias, have been dosing dishes with wild garlic for years. It figures in Italian cuisine as a pesto, in a soup combined with wild fennel and in frittatas. Belgians chop it up and mix it with fromage blanc and it even figures, in moderation, in salad recipes.
At 16 Jake Watkins worked for Jean-Christophe Novelli at a long-defunct restaurant in Southampton. By 20 he had his first head chef job (not a memorable one) and since then he has slowly been acquiring skills and experience that make him one of the most competent chefs in the country. A short spell at Holne Chase, a country-house hotel on the edge of Dartmoor, earned him recognition in the guidebooks at the end of the 1990s, but his cooking developed its own identity when he opened JSW, a 22-seat restaurant, in Petersfield at the start of the millennium. A Michelin star followed two years later and he moved to a larger site, a converted run-down pub, in the Hampshire town last year.
Having done the rounds of Europe's famous restaurants, he has stayed true, he believes, to the kind of food that he does best and allows it to change naturally: "I think you've got to make food taste nice and then when evolution happens it just happens."
His food has a practical, eatable quality about it. There are few (if any) garnishes on the plate. Everything, he says, should make the main ingredient taste better.
Brill fillet, wild garlic risotto and garlic flower fritters
Wild garlic flower fritters
Trim the stems so they are about 10cm long. On the underside of the flower spray you'll see two dried-looking bits. They were part of the original buds. Pull them off.
Batter mixture: 60g flour 30g cornflour pinch of salt 110ml any chilled fizzy water. Blend the ingredients rapidly into a light batter.
Preheat frying oil to 180°C. Hand-dip the flowers, one at a time, in the batter. Shake off excess batter and drop them immediately into the hot frying oil (1). They will fry crisp in about two minutes, but they won't colour.
Drain on absorbent paper (2) and serve at once. They will remain crisp for 10 minutes or a little longer.
Note: Don't try to fry the leaves in batter. It just slides off them.
Wild garlic puree
The batch size will depend on the style of kitchen operation, but there is no reason why a kitchen shouldn't prepare a single batch and vac-pack the purée or store it in jars for use during the rest of the year.
The texture may be thinner or stiffer, according to taste. The important part is to use the garlic leaves as soon after they have been harvested as possible.
Boil a large pan of water (about 10 litres to every kg of leaves.)
Drop the leaves into steadily boiling water (3). Leave them less than 10 seconds. Drain them and refresh them so they stop cooking. Don't squeeze them but allow any moisture to drain off.
To blend them to an intense chlorophyll-coloured purée, put 100ml of olive oil in a liquidiser. Add about 120g of blanched leaves and start blending. When they are almost puréed, add another 120g or so of leaves and continue to blend until the purée is smooth. To preserve the colour, pack the purée in an airtight container (4) and store out of the light.
Wild garlic powder
The principle is the same as for making any other flavoured powder. Dry the leaves until brittle - about four hours on the hotplate, or alternatively in a very cool oven (meringues). Grind the leaves to a powder in an electric spice mill, adding a little salt to them. The taste is milder than garlic salt and it looks much better.
Brill can weigh anything from 1kg to 4kg. This translates roughly into between two and 10 portions. The larger the fish, if it's in good condition, the higher the percentage of meat to bone and trim. Here Jake Watkins is working with a 3.5kg fish (cost price about £17 per kg, for a fish caught by day-boats) that yielded 10 portions of 130g each.
Filleting and skinning
When portioning, bear in mind that the two fillets on the dark-skinned side will be more plump than those on the white-skinned side underneath.
Choosing a knife: flexible or stiff blade doesn't matter as much as is often taught. Sharpness does. Don't cut with a jagged sawing action and keep the edge of the blade flush against the bone, away from the meat.
Fillet the dark-skinned side first. Cut down the centre line from tail to head (5) until the blade touches the bony gill cover. Follow its line around one side of the head (6).
Keep the blade at a shallow angle, pointing down to and against the bone, and lift the fillet off the backbone (7).
With a large brill (or a turbot), try to take the meat lying on top of bony fins that run down either side of a flat fish. The extra flesh provides a bonus that can be made into fish cakes, etc.
Remove the second dark-skinned fillet in the same way (8) and turn over the fish.
Fillet the white-skinned fish in the same way (9) and (10).
To remove the skins, loosen a flap of skin at one end (11). Hold the blade across it at a very shallow angle. Pull the skin from side to side against the knife edge so it gradually peels off the flesh (12).
Trim and portion the fillets (13).
Fish stock and veloute
Jake Watkins doesn't use the head for stock, but he does wash the skin and bones under cold running water before making them into a light stock with sweated onions and fennel.
2 diced shallots
1 garlic clove, crushed
250ml fish stock
500ml double cream
Heat the butter in a sauté pan and sweat the shallots and garlic without colouring until soft. Add the Riesling and reduce to a glaze. Add the stock and reduce by half. Season and add the cream. Boil, strain and reserve ready to foam.
Chefs have several ways of cooking risotto so that it will last through service with no loss of quality.
Optional: Store uncooked rice in Kilner jars with one or two summer truffles for extra flavour (14).
2 banana shallots, finely diced
250g (approx) Carnaroli rice
750ml-1 litre hot, light chicken stock
Warm the butter in a medium-sized saucepan. Cook out the shallots over a moderate heat without colouring them. Add the rice to the pan and coat thoroughly in the fat so it's glossy. Add salt. Pour about a third of the stock over the rice (15) and cook out till it's absorbed. Repeat this step twice more. The rice should be cooked al dente - this will take 15-20 minutes.
Spread the rice in a thin layer on to a shallow-sided tray to stop it cooking (16).
Assembly per portion
15ml olive oil
130g brill fillet
Dusting of wild garlic powder
Squeeze of lemon
100g (approx) risotto base
60ml double cream
2tbs grated parmigiano reggiano
3tbs wild garlic purée
3 wild garlic flower fritters, fried to order
Heat the oil and butter in a non-stick frying pan. Place the fish with the flatter surface against the pan. Dust the rounded surface with garlic powder. Squeeze a little lemon juice into the pan but not directly on the fish (18). Pan-fry until just done. The time will vary according to the heat and the thickness of the fish, but baste the top often. You can turn it over at the end for a few seconds cooking if necessary.
Heat the risotto base, cream and cheese in a small pan. Stir in two tablespoons of garlic purée (17).
Spoon the risotto into a large soup-bowl style dish. Lay the fish on top with the dusted surface uppermost.
Foam the hot velouté with a hand blender. Spoon a little over the risotto. Drizzle the rest of the purée on the foam and top the fish with garlic flower fritters.
Photography by Lisa Barber (www.lisabarber.co.uk)