Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is the wild garlic of the wine world. So says La Trompette’s head sommelier Donald Edwards who argues that both seem to be ‘one-note’ products that offer far more diversity than at first appears, and are only limited by how we approach them. Always one to take a new angle on wine, food and often radical wine pairings, we reproduce here another instalment of Donald’s excellent blog that looks at that most prolific of wild, free food – wild garlic.
If you do go out picking wild garlic this weekend, we also feature at the end of this piece Donald’s wild garlic, chicken and clams recipe.
Neurologically, novelty provokes a powerful response. The potent mix of excitement and fear that accompanies any completely new sensation has roots that dig aeons deep in our minds.
Wild garlic certainly isn’t anything new, indeed it’s often a signifier plant for old woodland. Our use of it, however, often is a new thing; it arrives in our kitchens at the point where we start to have confidence in our own cooking. It’s quite often the first ingredient we use that we have to actively seek out – be that taking a bag and a pair of scissors into the local woods or just parting with a wad of cash at a farmers market. Either way, the first time we get it home it’s with a definite thrill and sense of new possibilities.
In the early 90s, wines from Australia and New Zealand were still newish on the UK market. A generation was maturing – one that had grown up on poorly marketed, badly made wine from France and Italy. For many, the overt generosity of Australian Chardonnay and Shiraz was bewitching, wine had never been so easy to appreciate. Yes, there was some snobbishness, but the bulk of people knew better, and encouraged by a new generation of wine journalists, our parents enthusiastically embraced the New Worlds’ wines. The most seismic discovery was Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand.
Other wines from the New World might have taken Old World styles and amped them up, but nothing prepared us for what the extended growing season of Marlborough did for Sauvignon Blanc. Previously a minor grape known for Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, now Sauvignon was a star in its own right. A star that was ascending.
Suddenly we could discriminate discrete flavours in a wine’s bouquet. Cut grass, passion fruit, gooseberry (cat’s piss if we were being mean). Never before had wine been so forthright, had it spoken so directly to its consumer. Of course it was a hit; people loved it. They felt like it was their wine.
The love affair needn’t fade
The first time you pick wild garlic is revelatory; it’s a leaf, but one with all the bitey aggression of garlic and yet still more salad herb than salad drawer. There’s a taunting profligacy to the way it covers the wooded banks, contoured waves like a fringe flicked back to let you catch a quick glance. It seems to thrum with excitement, your picking alive with possibility.
By the time you get it home the lustre has faded. You’ll probably make some pesto; we all do. It’s nice enough. Maybe you freeze some, maybe you incorporate it into a stir fry and feel a bit disappointed. You don’t want to admit it but the whole wild garlic thing is… a bit of a let down. The elation you felt in the woods now absent, you’re left with a bag of faintly wilted leaves.
As is often the way with things we’ve fallen for in a flash, the love affair is short. The self same reasons we fall so fast are the beginnings of the end. The pleasure of Sauvignon’s aromatic clarity quickly sours when you see all your friends drinking it, when you realise it’s no longer your little secret.
Both wild garlic and Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc share aromatics in the same flavour group, they’re all about the Thiols. Sulphurous alcohol analoges that blaze their way across both the allium and the Sauvignon families.
Thiols are bold flavours: often oniony, potentially divisive and quite unapologetic about it. However, sometimes, that’s all there is. We eat and drink other things that are, objectively, more challenging aromatically. We mature. We move on.
Daniel Dennet talks about what he calls the Philosophers’ Syndrome; mistaking a failure of the imagination for an insight into necessity. Similarly, I don’t think our tunnel vision myopia with regards to what we can do with wild garlic is quite the damning indictment of its qualities as it might seem.
It’s great fermented, quite wonderful with steamed fish in an Asian style, or mashed with capers and lemon zest and smeared into a rolled lamb shoulder for roasting. Once you realise that one new ingredient in your pantry isn’t going to gift you a million new dishes, and that inspiration takes effort, that bag of wild garlic starts to look interesting again.
Likewise, familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt with New Zealand’s Sauvignons. We’ve invited the commonality of slight oxidation in zero sulphur natural wines into our lives and learnt to look past it to see subtle differences in terroir. So maybe, we ought to question why we haven’t stopped to look at what more Marlborough might now be offering, asking ourselves to look for interest and diversity around the fruit we’ve summarily dismissed.
We have Dog Point Section 94, taking smoky reductiveness seemingly as far as it can go; like Divine doing Jean-Francois Coche-Dury. Zephyr’s MkIII adroitly showing the difference a block can make in precision of herbal expression. Cloudy Bay’s under appreciated oaked example Te Koko after a few years of being ignored in a cellar… and that’s just three pretty ‘straight bat’ examples. Loveblock’s dazzlingly strange Tee Sauvignon, zero sulphur and utilising green tea for its antioxidant properties instead. Moving slightly further away, Hermit Ram’s glorious skin contact Sauvignon seemingly has more in common with a juice box IPA, all tropical fruit and turbidity but nonetheless ridiculously delicious.
It makes me think that the interest that we can find in something so seemingly one note and homogenous is entirely a function of how much we can imagine there to be.
Wild garlic, Chicken and Clams
2 litres chicken stock
A handful of parsley
Enough clams for 2 people
A large handful of wild garlic
Roughly chop a carrot, half the fennel and the onions, add them to the chicken broth. Pop the chicken in and bring slowly to the boil, simmer for 30 mins.
Remove the chicken and let it cool, remove the veg bits and discard.
Once the chicken is cool, remove the breasts and slice them as neatly as you can.
Reduce the stock until it fair punches you in the face with delicious chickeniness. Season.
Make sure your wild garlic is well washed then select about three excellent looking leaves per bowl you plan to serve. Chop the rest into thin ribbons.
Slice the remaining carrot into fine rounds and the other half of fennel into thin strips.
Steam the clams in some of the chicken broth along with the sliced wild garlic, carrot and fennel, when the clams are starting to open add the remaining wild garlic leaves and chicken breast slices.
Serve in a shallow bowl.
Freeze the rest of the chicken broth for maximum smug points.
Read more of Edwards’ radical wine pairings here and follow him on Instagram @donalde81