Great Rampaging Ramsons!
Schopenhauer apparently said that smell was our special sense for memory. But then again, old Artie would say anything for a laugh.
He was right, though. Perhaps because we have never developed a vocabulary for dealing with smells (the best one can do is to compare one aroma with another; for example, I think most roses smell a bit like raspberries), we haven't rationalised them in the same way that we have with the data from all our other senses, and so they invoke responses directly from our unconscious without the filters of words or concepts.
I've referred to this before, I know. Like here, where I describe how the perfume of wallflowers took me back forty years or more to my childhood; and even more so how the smell of a plastic groundsheet when sleeping in a tent in Herefordshire in my late teens returned me somehow to my infancy because it smelled like my old pram.
Here's another example, but this time with a practical outcome.
Back in the mid-1970s, when I was a daily prisoner in a comprehensive school of no known distinction, the school bus would travel from Brymbo down through Ffrwd to Cefn Y Bedd and on to Gwersyllt, where the lamentable institution I referred to above stood. And stands still. Indeed, it seems to have stood still since 1978.
On the journey home during the period from mid-May to mid-June, as the bus passed the pub (then called The Red Lion, now just called the Ffrwd as if seeking not to confuse anyone) and started to climb the hill, the cry would go up, "Close the windows!". This was because down to our right was the steep valley carrying the Cegidog river, and the woods on the side nearer to the road were snithing with wild garlic. So strong was the stench from this that it would envelope and pervade the entire coach in a matter of seconds, and there would be no escaping it until we got off the bus.
As you can see from my comments under the second photograph here, I encountered that smell again some thirty years or more later, and it duly evoked the memories I've just described.
Back up to date: a few Sundays ago, I was sitting here shortly after breakfast wondering what the hell I could possibly do with the rest of the morning. I felt that I just had to get out of the house - it being a nice-looking day and all - so I took myself off on a walk of about two and a half miles or so, which is as far as I feel comfortable with nowadays, especially in an area where it's always going to be substantially uphill at some point.
Now I'm not going to describe my route, for reasons which I will come to, but I turned down a short footpath which provided a quicker means of getting from one part of the route to the next without having to follow the road all the way to the junction. As I started to walk down it, I noticed a profusion of plants on either side of the path. "Hmmm", I bethought myself. "Those look like wild garlic.". Doing the best I could with a poor phone signal, I looked it up and found that, yes, these plants could be wild garlic. However, the page I consulted warned that they may equally well not be, as the leaves are quite similar to the leaves of lily-of-the-valley, which is most emphatically not edible. The only way to make sure it was the former rather than the latter was by the flowers. These were yet to emerge however, whichever plant they turned out to be from, and so I thought it wise to use caution. I resolved to come back in about three to four weeks to see if there was conclusive proof one way or the other.
This morning at about 11:00, I duly set off with three sandwich bags to the appointed spot, to find that the flowers had now appeared and that, yes, they were definitely allium ursinum. I duly set to it.
Now I must point out that there are certain rules which should be followed when foraging like this:
- Make sure you've got the plant you think you've got (and this is why I would never go picking mushrooms on the same basis without being accompanied by an experienced mycophile)
- Get the landowner's permission (if said wight can be ascertained)
- If the plant is growing on common ground (as in this case; it's a public footpath, after all), pick the leaves and/or the flowers but not the bulbs
- Always make sure that you don't take more than you really need so that others may take advantage of that particular part of Nature's Bounty™ and to ensure a crop next year as well
(This is why I'm not telling you where exactly this little treasure trove is to be found)
- Don't pick entirely from one spot; spread your attentions over the whole area so that you're just thinning the growth out a bit rather than leaving great big gaps.
Having obeyed these rules, I filled the three butty bags with fresh leaves and headed home. I put the bags on the worktop in the kitchen and pondered what to do next. Wild garlic, once washed and dried again, will keep in the fridge but only for a few days. Storage beyond that means either making it into something or freezing it. I had decided that I was going to try to make wild garlic butter, but I didn't have enough butter to spare to do it today; that would have to await my shopping jaunt on Saturday morning. So I had to hope that it would stay in usable condition until then.
I emptied the bags into the colander, which was full to the very top with leaves. I then washed them and laid them to dry on kitchen paper. I had cut off the few which had long stems on them, and had eaten one or two of the stems. As I had read during my researches, they did indeed taste like a mild spring onion.
(Wild garlic is a very versatile food plant, in that every part of it - leaves, flowers, stems and bulbs - is edible in some way or another. And with regards to the 'stinky breath' issue, one site I consulted put it in a pleasingly direct way:
"It doesn't actually smell too bad on your breath. Unlike kitchen garlic, which honks.")
As the leaves would need to be cut up very small to mix in with the butter, I decided to get the small blender out for the first time in years rather than finely chop by hand (which, knowing me, would more likely end up being 'finely chop my hand'). This nonetheless took well over twenty minutes, but I finally had a small metal bowl full of chopped wild garlic leaves. I put the lid firmly on it, wrapped it in a plastic bag, and put it in the salad drawer in the bottom of the fridge to await the arrival of the butter on Saturday. I used the rest of the stems in the golden vegetable rice which I had with my dill-marinated herring at tea-time, and the taste was still well detectable.
Of course as a result of all this, the kitchen mings and - judging by my experience of adding garlic paste to my fabled fried mushroom recipe - it will continue to 'honk' well into tomorrow when - if the forecast is any guide - it might be possible for me to escape it by getting into the garden to continue my near-Zionist campaign of genocide against the dandelions.
(Oh, and if you want to know what ramsons in flower look like - perhaps in order to save yourself the possibility of killing yourself by eating lilies by mistake - I've added a new page to the Gallery to show you. Note that - unlike all the other pages in the Gallery except for the ones about me - there is no set of co-ordinates giving the location, for the same reason as I gave above).