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.