Nettle and wild garlic soup with fennel and fresh herbs
Officially we’re in the tail of wild garlic season. But as the ramson leaves in the back of my garden are still growing and blooming without restraint AND I just discovered a whole, lushly growing patch of them in the park, I couldn’t let the season end without posting the recipe for this wild garlic soup. It’s wonderfully flavoured but extremely easy to make. It’s a welcome warm-you-up in the chilly days we keep having. Yet with its vibrant colour and fresh flavour it’s the ultimate celebration of spring.
To me, every year, discovering the first pointy wild garlic leaves peeking through the snow is a joyous moment. Not only because they mark the start of the new season, but also because of the range of culinary possibilities they open. With their delicate flavour ranging between garlic and spring onion, they add instant flavour to anything they’re paired with. So each year I make the most of their availability and let them shine in spring pesto, flavoured cream cheese, herbed focaccia or handmade tortellini, to name a few. The young leaves at the start of the season are the most tender and full-flavoured, but the large end-of season leaves are still wonderful for making soup! In this wild garlic soup I paired them with another ready to pick spring green – stinging nettle.
Chances are, in this time of year you need only to step outside to have bunches of stinging nettle standing ready for you to choose from. This may not always, necessarily, feel like a positive thing. But it will, once you start seeing them as a seasonal ingredient in your kitchen. Combined with lemon zest and fresh herbs, they make a wonderful base for nettle bread. And paired with wild garlic, they turn this soup into something delicious.
To keep their colour and flavour at their most fresh, the ramsons and nettles are added to the soup at the very last and cooked very briefly, just long enough for the nettle leaves to lose their sting. The wild garlic gives the soup a delicate herby touch, whereas the wilted nettle leaves add a deep savoury flavour. Before adding the greens, I flavour the veg stock with slowly cooked onion, celery and fennel. This adds substance and a friendly sweet, aniseedy depth to the savoury nettle flavour, which I personally love. As I understand, though, fennel is a divisive ingredient and if you’re not keen on its characteristic flavour, you can use carrots instead.
After wilting the nettle and garlic leaves, simply whizz the soup until smooth and vibrantly green. Enjoy with toppings of your choice: soft green herbs or cress, the pretty and edible wild garlic flowers or the white or pink flowers of neighbouring dead nettle plants, and a drizzle of plant-based cream if you like.
Happy spring cooking!
Tips on where to find wild garlic
During the season, which runs from March to May, you may find wild garlic on farmers’ markets and in some vegetable stores. And if you have the opportunity, getting outdoors to pick your own adds to the seasonal joy. Wild garlic is a shade-loving plant often found on the humus-rich soil of forests and under hedges. In the Netherlands, where I live, there’s a growing number of parks where patches are planted. And these days you can even buy wild garlic bulbs or whole plants at garden centres, to be planted in that shaded part of your garden where nothing else will grow.
When picking your own, make sure that it is legal to forage in public areas and that you know exactly what plant you’re looking for. Later in the season, the characteristic white flowers make wild garlic easily distinguishable from similar-looking leaves. Wild garlic leaves are tender and floppy, but share their shape with the more rigid and poisonous lily-of-the-valley and equally toxic autumn crocus. As a rule of thumb: if they don’t smell like garlic, don’t eat them. When you find a suitable patch, pick just a few leaves per plant, leaving some for your fellow foragers to enjoy and leaving enough energy for the bulbs to regrow the next year.
Tips on foraging for nettle leaves
From March on, finding stinging nettles usually isn’t a problem! Try and choose a bunch that’s not too near busy roads and dog-walking areas. Wear gloves to protect your hands – I use long washing-up gloves and a pair of scissors to snip off just the top 4-6 leaves of every plant. When back home, keep on your gloves to rinse and process the leaves, then cook the leaves well to remove their sting.
Nettle and wild garlic soup with fennel and fresh herbs – serves 4
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 shallots, finely diced
- 2 celery sticks, finely diced
- 1 fennel bulb, finely diced
- 200 g freshly picked nettle leaves, rinsed (wear gloves to protect your hands)
- 200 g wild garlic leaves, coursely chopped
- 1 litre vegetable stock
- 2 tsp. white wine vinegar
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- oat cream, to serve
- atsina cress, chervil leaves, wild garlic flowers or dead nettle flowers, to garnish
Over a moderate heat, heat the oil in a large pan. Add the chopped shallots, celery and fennel. Stirring every now and then, gently cook the vegetables for 15-20 minutes, taking care not to colour the onions.
When the vegetables are soft, add the stock. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the nettle leaves and leave to wilt for 2 minutes, then add the chopped wild garlic. Simmer for another minute, then take off the heat.
Using a stick blender or regular blender, whizz the soup until completely smooth. Stir in the vinegar and a generous grinding of black pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Divide the soup over 4 bowls. Drizzle with oat cream and top with herbs and flowers of your choice.