Almost unheard of in British cuisine a few years ago, bear's garlic or wild garlic is now very fashionable and appears on many top restaurant menus. In early summer it can be found growing in profusion near where my dad lives in North Yorkshire.
Bear's garlic in flower
Bear's garlic packaged for sale
Western or Central Europe.
Bear’s garlic grows wild across Western and Central Europe. As with its relative allium sativum garlic, bear's garlic was grown in medieval monasteries in accordance with Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis. In the US, allium tricoccum "ramp", a wild plant with more onion-like flavour, is similarly used.
Young leaves, preferably fresh, harvested before the plants starts flowering. The bulb, being much smaller than that of garlic, is only rarely used.
Alliaceae (onion family).
For the etymology of botanical genus name allium and common name element "garlic", see garlic.
The English common name "ramson" (Old English hramsan) is of unclear origin. Cognates are found in several Germanic languages (e.g. Swedish ramslök) and Slavonic languages (e.g. Russian cheremsha). There are several possibly related words in other Indo-European tongues: Greek krommyon and Sanskrit krimighna both meaning "onion" and Welsh craf meaning "garlic".
With the exception of Northern Germanic languages, most names of bear's garlic in European tongues translate to "bear's garlic", "bear's leek" or "bear's onion" (e.g. German bärlauch, Dutch beerlook, Italian erba orsina, French ail des ours, Spanish ajo de oso, Czech medvědí česnek, Russian chesnok medvezhij, Hungarian medvehagyma, Latvian lakši). Romanian leurdă also belongs to that group, being composed of an element le "garlic" (from Latin allium) and a second element urda related to Modern Romanian urs "bear". Bulgarian levurda was loaned from Romanian. The connection with bears (ursinum from Latin ursus "bear") supposedly refers to the animals' habit of feeding on the plant when first ending their winter hibernation.
Many languages have a name for bear's garlic signifying "wild garlic", e.g. French ail sauvage, Greek agrio skordo, Russian dikij chesnok and Turkish yabanî sarımsak serve as examples. Another, less common, denomination is "garlic of the forest" as in Dutch woutknooploock and Spanish ajo silvestre. Confusingly, the Bulgarian name div chesun "wild garlic" does not mean bear's garlic but denotes chives instead.
Bear's garlic, growing wild in fens and river woods of Central Europe, is much used in local cuisines, but since it cannot be cultivated it has not gained global importance in cooking. In spring, the leaves are collected and used raw to flavour spreads based on cottage cheese, soups and sauces. Dried leaves usually exhibit a very faint odour and should be used in liberal amounts. They are better preserved by preparing a pesto-like sauce or simply by freezing.
In Germany and other parts of Central Europe, bear's garlic has increased significantly in popularity during the past few years. While bear's garlic was formerly known only to a few, today hardly any haute cuisine chefs will miss the opportunity to create new recipes using the herb during the short season.
Bear's garlic should not be boiled or simmered at all, but used raw with the fresh leaves being mixed with the hot food and eaten immediately. Otherwise, most of the characteristic flavour is wasted and the aroma perfumes the kitchen but not the food.
Since bear's garlic has become so popular, many people have tried to collect the plant in the wild, resulting in several cases of poisoning amongst those confusing the leaves with the highly poisonous convallaria majus "lily of the valley" and even more toxic colchicum autumnale "autumn crocus" or "meadow saffron".