As April drifts effortlessly into May this year, the county of Norfolk display its most luxuriant phase. This month is one of my personal favourites and at this time of year the countryside around bursts into colour from hues of lime green to deep viridian with halos of white and pink blossom highlighting the vista in all directions. Back lanes appear almost impassable with growth springing through hedgerows and woodlands becoming denser with brand new growth.

It is also the time of year when kitchens, both domestic and commercial herald the new season’s local produce exhibiting lighter, fresher and riper ingredients to excite cooks and chefs alike. Our harvest of root vegetables that have filled winter casseroles since last Autumn slowly give way to the first of Jersey Royal potatoes, peas arrive in pods and that emissary of all that is spring-time in our county, Asparagus, returns in many forms to our dining tables.

My own culinary thoughts are well rewarded as I rediscover an almost secretive patch of dark green leaves, reminiscent of a small aspidistra with a fire burst of star-like pure white blossom in a nearby woodland, nestling almost unseen within a floating purple haze of the season’s first bluebells. It is this telltale white blossom that helps the passer-by hone in on the first free food of the year: wild garlic.

Our most common species with its own hundred year-old latin name of Allium ursinium, can be found fairly easily on roadsides, river banks or deciduous woodland usually growing in cooler, damper spots shaded from the extremes of direct sunshine.

Known widely in Great Britain as Ransons with parochial names such as  “Stinking Jenny” in the west country, “Bears Garlic” in the north, and the less than flattering “Gypsies’ Onions” in Ireland.

One might deduce from such names that this was not, in the past, the natural food of the landed gentry. Along with wild herbs, nettles and tiny hedgerow strawberries, wild garlic – still rather unfairly – shares its reputation as food for the poor, the needy and the assorted orphans of the parish. Due to the unarguable skills of some of the world’s bankers and politicians I am beginning to fit into at least two of the above categories these days, so exhibit no shame in my local harvesting. My first encounter with wild garlic as an ingredient on a restaurant menu was when visiting the wine region of Wachau in Austria. Around springtime there, the plant is collected in vast quantities alongside the banks of the River Danube. From some of the swankiest restaurants in Wachau, chefs queue for a share in the crop to proclaim the advent of spring via a wonderful local soup. The leaves are sweated down in butter, with no need for onions or chives as the leaves are so piquant, then blitzed with a stock (often fish) to provide the creamy pungent broth. White asparagus, so popular in mainland Europe, is then floated on the soup and the whole meal is served with toasted bread rubbed with the white flowers of the garlic.

After the demise of its popularity amongst the destitute of Victorian England, it has been some time before we reviewed the plant’s merits, although it appears we have been a little slow on the uptake of this wonderful foodstuff; most colleagues I have canvassed have never eaten the stuff.  However, there is increasing evidence that its appearance will grow on more menus around the country, often to be served in place of wilted spinach leaves. Perhaps having stirred some interest I must be candid in relaying that the season for wild garlic is barely two to three weeks long so there is less than a fortnight to seek out this unfettered luxury at the time of writing.

I was relaying my thoughts to an Italian winegrower via email and he immediately sent back what he regarded as the most popular risotto recipes in northern Italy. One, of course, contained asparagus and prawns, the other, wild garlic.

If you locate the plant do try the recipe. I can’t tell you where I harvest, as I still want some more and the National Trust may well have my guts for garters, but I am sure there are some beds you can locate. The recipe involves cooking off that Italian staple, similar to our own streaky bacon, pancetta, which is a salted belly of pork cut into small chunks with a sweeter fat content that many alternatives. Add some finely chopped leeks with good risotto rice, some white wine and the normal slow addition of stock depending on your preference. Once the ingredients are cooked and the rice is “al dente” tear you garlic leaves and add to the risotto. With a final grating of Parmesan the meal is ready. In Italy the flowers are added at the very last minute and lift the meal with a clean tangy note.

A couple of words of warning on locating wild foods. Obviously you must seek advice on the plants you are to pick so there is no confusion whatsoever on your identification. The second crucial piece of advice is to wash all plants as it is not always farmers who spray – a passing labrador