Some years ago, I snitched a couple of l’ail des ours (bear garlic – allium ursinum) plants from the woods and planted them in my garden. They’ve got delicate, deep-green leaves and sweet, starburst-white flowers and they smell headily of garlic, making them lovely additions. More importantly, though, they’re  “witness” plants, telling me that soon the forest floor will be blanketed by their brethren.

Their presence used to inform me, too, that within days I’d have a visit from my friend Xiao, who owned the café across the street. Every year she would go into the woods near her house and harvest armfuls of the plants, which her husband, Sylvain, transformed into soups, sauces, and tarts for customers at the cafe.  She always brought me a basketful. Since she’s no longer bustling around the cafe, I expected nothing from her and planned to go harvest my own. But one fine morning early this week I opened my door to find a big basketful, my yearly supply. Xiao was nowhere to be seen, present only through the sms that alerted me to the gift on my doorstep.

L’ail des ours is similar, but not identical to, ramps (allium tricoccum). Originating in Europe and Asia, the U.S. version, which grows wild east of Minnesota and Iowa, has a larger bulb than what emerges in the forests of France.  Their intriguing garlic flavors are similar.

If you can’t find them in the wild, they’re easy to cultivate in moist areas with filtered sun, so plant them under your hydrangea or your old pear tree, which is what I did with mine. They flourish, without any attention at all.

This year, I got busy with my bear garlic. I made soup – sautéeing the leaves and stems in olive oil, adding water, then cream and pureeing it together; I put leaves on the grill and watched as they bubbled and curled into translucent perfection; I made pesto.  Everything was delicious but the pesto was magical, and here it is for you.


Naturally, if you can’t find ramps you can use tender spring spinach, or arugula, or a blend of lettuces. And you’ll need to add a big clove of garlic, too!

I like to serve this as a dip with fresh vegetables, over al dente pasta, or on freshly toasted bread. You’ll think of many ways to use it!

About 6 ounces (180g) l’ail des ours leaves, without stems
¼ cup (25g) walnuts
Generous pinch of fine sea salt
6 tablespoons (90ml) extra-virgin olive oil

  1. Place the leaves in the workbowl of a food processor and process until they are coarsely chopped. Add the walnuts and pulse until they are coarsely chopped, then add the salt and pulse once or twice. With the food processor running, add the oil slowly. Taste for seasoning.

About 1 cup (250ml)





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7 Responses to Bear Garlic

  1. I would grow that in my garden just because it is so pretty!

  2. Lindsay says:

    I can almost smell this! How long would it keep in the refrigerator? I imagine there wouldn’t be much left, but it might be fun to make a huge batch!

  3. Cheryl Ward says:

    Hi Susan,

    Loved your story of the Bear Garlic as my riverside and forest are full of it in the spring and I had never used it! I tried about 9 different recipes using it and have frozen pesto for other times this year. It was a great feeling to use these plants and taste their flavor and know the health benefits as well! Thank you!

    I wish you much happiness in your new adventure. I am considering a new adventure as well after ten years having my Tables d’hotes. If you didn’t catch Midi en France yesterday…I was on the show which was such a compliment! If you have a moment please see where I am in Brittany, France. Not sure what my next adventure will be…but I would like to travel, explore, meet new people and try foods around the world.

    Safe travels and all the best to you!
    Cheryl Ward

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