Out walking at Arger Fen, the early May air was filled with the glorious scent of bluebells mingling with the more gastronomically interesting wild garlic. Properly named allium ursinum and known as ramson in the UK and ramps in the USA, the upright leaves of these alliums can be eaten cooked and uncooked, having a gentler, more mellifluous flavour. I grow both kinds: the American allium tricoccum lives on my allotment in a sheltered, frost-free spot and ursinum is happy unsheltered in the garden, where it constantly threatens to take over the entire space.
Lately wild garlic has benefited from a culinary renaissance of sorts, being much heralded by urbanite food-lovers, the kind of folks who will happily pay £5 for a bare handful in complete ignorance of its undemanding growth and easy availability. Wild picking is allowed but I am wary of encouraging foraging because there is always going to be one fool who razes supplies to the ground, ripping up whole roots instead of taking a few leaves from each plant. However if you know where to look and don’t get greedy, avoiding protected areas such as Arger Fen (which is a Special Site of Scientific Interest), a few stems can perfume your cooking with that familiar alliaceous tang.
I like to serve this herald of spring with a simple but unctuous pasta made from egg yolks rather than the whole egg. Known as Tajarin by the Piedmontese who make tagliarini pasta noodles in this manner, my favourite recipe for egg-yolk pasta is inspired by the pasta served at Dei Cacciatori near Alba. A tiny little restaurant, it is owned by chef patron Cesare who has become known as a master of the Langhe cooking style. These tagliarini are usually made with unbleached white 00 flour instead of semolina because the latter has a higher gluten content which can make hand-rolling rather an arduous process. Using 00 flour to make this sunny yellow pasta is far easier on the forearms. The recipe presumes the ownership of a pasta machine to thin the dough which is then hand-cut by knife. Don’t worry if you don’t have a machine; a rolling pin will produce good results and if you prefer to buy ready made pasta, the dish will still taste great although it will lack some of the unctuousness that hand made pasta brings to the palate. I don’t know of a shop-bought source of egg-yolk pasta but you will need to buy the highest-quality pasta you can find.
Like all simple recipes, this depends on the very best of everything: Italian unsalted butter, fresh farm eggs with deep-golden yolks and a well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano with a good tyrosine-rich crunch. The sauce is a simple brown butter which coats the ramps without rendering them unassertive and limp. It will taste as luxurious as the butter you choose and its nature will change accordingly because, as you know, good butter is the result of the cow’s seasonal diet. I was lucky enough to be given some Delitia Prmiagiano Reggiano Il Burro last year which is made with the same cows milk that Parmesan cheese is made from. Being a cultured butter, the Delitia infused the pasta with a pronounced nutty flavour, balancing the wild garlic beautifully. Lescure Beurre des Charentes from France would be a suitable choice too, because it browns well in the pan, giving a subtle caramelised flavour. It is more easily available in the UK, from specialist food suppliers.
Don’t waste the wild garlic flowers either. Keep a few stems in a vase on the kitchen shelf and snip the pretty white star-shaped blooms off to scatter over dishes. The flowers are especially handy if you don’t like stronger garlic flavours because they are milder, with a lovely crunch at the base of each blossom. Strew them over salads, especially those of the Caesar type or mix into salads made heartier with quinoa, couscous, ebly or bulgur. Scatter them over pasta, roast chicken and lamb (in fact any meat will benefit) or dry the flowers in a warm, humid-free place, then add to jars of rice, pulses or your favourite olive oil so as to infuse them all with a gentle garlicky taste and aroma. So versatile.
Recipe for 3-4 people.
1/2 Lb unbleached white flour / salt and fresh ground black pepper / 10 yolks from extra large eggs / 1/2 tbsp grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese/ 6 tbsp unsalted butter, softened at room temperature / a handful of wild garlic, at least two stems per person / unsalted good quality butter for the sauce
Put all but 1/2 cup of the flour on the counter, sprinkle with 1/4 tbsp salt, make a depression in the centre and pour in the egg yolks. Stir the yolks with a fork, gradually incorporating all the flour until you have a sticky mass of dough. Using the reserved 1/2 cup of flour, powder your hands and the work surface liberally and knead the dough, adding more flour as needed until you have a smooth soft ball that no longer sticks to your fingers. Cover with a towel and let rest for 30 minutes. You can also use a food processor to mix the dough and then knead by hand.
Divide the dough into roughly 6 pieces and roll each one 8/9 times through pasta machine set at the widest setting, folding the dough and turning it after each pass. Thin each piece of dough at increasingly narrow settings until you have sheets a tad thicker than ordinary pasta sheets (about setting 5) and approx 20 inches long. Place sheets flat on floured table top, dust with more flour (lightly) and let them dry out until their surface starts to look like leather but don’t let them get brittle. Turn them over to dry the other side then, total drying time will be between 15-30 minutes.
Working with one dough sheet at a time, fold from one short end to another several times into a compact shape 3 inches in length; trim any ragged edges then cut into 1/8 inch strips. Unfold the pasta noodles and let them dry further for about half a day.
Put a full pan of salted water on to boil. Wash and dry a handful of the wild garlic (two stems per person) and slice into thin strips, slicing the bulbs too. When the water comes to a boil, add all the pasta at once, stirring until the water comes back up to boil. Cook the pasta at full boil until they lose their ‘rubbery’ texture but retain resistance to the bite -‘al dente’. This may take 5 minutes but after 2 minutes start testing them every 30 seconds or so. When they are ready, drain them in a colander.
Whilst the pasta cooks, cook the wild garlic. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a small fry pan of skillet over medium heat and when it stops sizzling, turn the flame to low and add the wild garlic. Stir fry gently, keeping it moving and coated in the butter. You may need to add a little more butter to the pan but don’t let it burn. When the garlic strips wilt, becoming knife-tip softened; they are ready. Cover and keep warm while you prep the pasta.
Place the pasta in a large bowl. Pour the garlicky buttery cooking juices over the pasta and strew the garlic strips over the top. Thin slice the remaining 2 tbsp of butter and dot over. Grate parmigiano-reggiano cheese over the garlic strips and butter, add a good grind of black pepper and serve.