By Mícheál Ó Coileáin
Editor: Cormac foley
A dear friend, recently delivered to my door, a delicious pot of pesto made from wild garlic, picked in Com Dubh, near Anascaul. The light green colour and strong smell had the goodness that a shop product, could never produce.
In ancient Ireland it was common in late Spring, for people to switch from a mainly meat based diet, to a plant based diet. Amongst the first of the wild edible plants to appear in woodlands and ditches was wild garlic – a welcome sight, heralding in the summer and the prospect of more food being available after the darkness and cold of winter. My friend, the pesto maker, was continuing a tradition that has a long history in Kerry – foraging.
When examining the early written texts which survive from Ireland in the 7th and 8th centuries, it is obvious that a great deal of gathering of food took place from the wild, as opposed to the cultivated. Wild garlic (Allium ursinum), still grows in shady damp woodlands, fields and along hedgerows and it is in full bloom as we write in Mid April. It is found throughout Ireland and Europe.
Its tiny white flowers and bright green leaves in some places form a canopy beneath the trees and in other areas, it’s quite scarce. It is commonplace in ancient woods where it creates a flowering carpet of star-like blossoms instead of the blue flooring of bluebells.
Wild garlic was an important wild edible plant in ancient Ireland according to the Irish botanist Peter Wyse Jackson in his seminal work ‘Ireland’s Generous Nature – The past and present uses of wild plants in Ireland.’ Jackson describes how “Chopped leaves add interest to salads or can be added to flavour other foods, such as stews, sauces, soup or soft cheeses and cottage cheese. The leaves can also be made into a puree with nuts, mustard leaves, olive oil and lemon juice to make a pesto that can be used with pasta or added as flavouring to stews, burgers and other meats.” As recently as the 19th century in Ireland, wild garlic was used to flavour butter instead of salt. There is also some evidence of bog butter, found by turf cutters, was flavoured with wild garlic and left to mature in the bog to enhance its flavour and probably to store it over a period of time.
The wild herb was so highly valued in Ireland that, according to the Brehon laws, there was a penalty for stealing it from private land – the poacher would have to pay the land owner “two and a half milch cows”. In the 8th century it was customary for a tenant to provide an annual crimfeis, ‘garlic feast’, for his Chieftain, usually before Easter, where the garlic was served with milk and cheese. Failing to do so would also result in a fine or penalty.
Wild garlic was greatly valued for its healing properties in Irish folk medicine. It was eaten raw or boiled in milk and rubbed onto skin as a remedy. The herb was used to treat a host of illnesses: toothache, worms, warts, corns, sores (specifically on the fingers), wounds, sore eyes, toothache, coughs, colds, sore throats, chest and lung infections, asthma, stomach aches, indigestion, kidney problems, measles, mumps, rheumatism, sciatica, tuberculosis; it was even used as a blood purifier and to dissolve blood clots.
And finally, of particular interest in these days of Covid 19, wild garlic was carried in people’s pockets to ward off flu during the 1918 pandemic in Ireland.