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Pork chops and spring gems

After the harsh winter (thankfully an ever-more distant memory now we’re firmly into May) the recent bout of superb spring weather has brought welcome warmth and cheer in more than one way. Spring heralds two of our favourite fresh British delights: wild garlic, and asparagus. We’ve already written about both on several occasions, but with seasonal goodies this great, I’m not ashamed to sing their praises a little more. They provided the perfect partnership to prime Pennine pork last month.
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Wild Garlic Pennine Pesto

I can’t believe it’s only a year since I first tried cooking with wild garlic: this proved to be a revelatory experience on two levels. First, I rediscovered it’s fun to forage for local, wild food (as Miss South can testify with her participation in regular Invisible Food Walks) and secondly, I found out wild garlic tastes really, really good.

There’s a spot nearby where ramsons run wild and profuse so at the weekend I picked a few handfuls… some to take to city-dwelling veggie mates who appreciate the delicate spring freshness… and the rest for me. I tend to pick the leaves and the occasional flower bud, rather than lifting whole plants. After all, this should be a sustainable food one can come back to year after year, so keep the roots and flowers going. So now I had the sustenance from this year’s spring, what was I to make of it?

Towards the end of last year’s season I had a recommendation to make pesto from the wild garlic leaves, as it freezes well and is a good way of preserving a little bit of spring sunshine into the winter months. I didn’t have time to try this out, although I did freeze a few leaves, which we ended up using in our blog’s first birthday dinner. So it seemed only right that I give Pennine pesto a go this year as the brief season is now fully underway.

I’ve previously made Pesto Genovese at home, taking my cue from years past when our mum used to convert the surfeit of fresh basil from the greenhouse into great pesto. From what I remember it was pretty classic pesto… only basil, parmesan, good olive oil, pine nuts and garlic. Last year MIss North and I were very pleased with a fantastic pesto we made from cobnuts and beetroot tops. However the whole subject of pesto making is a contentious subject, discussed in this piece by Felicity Cloake, so I did some more reading. The more I read, the more I wanted to keep it simple, doing a straight swap of basil for ramsons. I rather liked this blog post about wild garlic pesto, so after some brief prep I rolled up my sleeves and got started.

I (rolls eyes) toasted my nuts in a heavy pan, then tossed them in sea salt and let them cool down fully to bring out the best of their flavour. Meanwhile I washed each ramson leaf. Yes, one by one, like some slow-motion chlorophyllic shampoo advert. Although it’s a bit of a faff when you have a load of leaves it’s worth doing it properly to remove any icky things. I grated the cheese (half pecorino romano, half parmesan) and measured out the oil.

At first I tried to use my mortar and pestle to mash up the mix (doing things the traditional way), but I soon realised I’d need a Belfast sink-sized setup to grind all the long leaves easily. I was also getting hungry, so I used the hand blender instead, incorporating the wild garlic, nuts and oil in batches. Once they were done I stirred in the cheese, and a healthy grind of black pepper. I kept the final mix quite coarse; wanting a little bite from the pine nuts, and to let the grated cheese bind everything together. If anything I think it was a wee bit thin, so in future I’d probably reduce the quantity of olive oil, although it was only afterwards I realised I should’ve kept some back to top the jar off with.

The pesto was vividly viridecent; ramsons don’t have the same tendency to bruise or discolour as basil, so it looked fab. The flavour was clean and fresh, without tasting too ‘thin’ or indeed too ‘garlicky’. Tastes and looks great over some good spaghetti or linguine… and as I’ve made enough to keep me going for a while, any spare can go straight in the freezer to add some springtime greenery for a later date!

Beetroot and Cobnut Pesto

This weekend saw September’s Invisible Food Walk and the beautiful autumnal day brought much seasonal foodie inspiration. I eyed up some crabapples for a chili infused jam, noted where the sloes are in Brixton, marvelled at the abundance of elderberries and sampled some amazing vegan food at the post walk picnic.

One of these dishes was a vegan pesto made with beetroot greens and cashew nuts. I was too busy stuffing my face with it to ask what the umami element was since it definitely wasn’t parmesan. Whatever it was it was delicious and I lost out on seconds to a couple of the kids who were very taken with the colour and the flavour…

So when I picked my first crop of beetroot from the garden the next day to accompany the grouse Mister North and I roasted, I made sure to keep the lovely young tender leaves, stems and teeny tiny baby beets that hadn’t really reached full potential. I planned to pick up some pine nuts next day and make a pesto with them when I remembered Mister North had picked up some fresh Kentish cobnuts at the Farmers’ Market earlier that day. Why not use these seasonal treats to make the pesto instead of the more traditional pine nuts?

While the grouse was roasting, we stripped the outer husks and then popped the cobnuts in the oven at 180°C for about 20 minutes to roast them lightly before shelling them. This was trickier than it sounds. The shells are quite tough and the nuts quite soft and buttery in texture so it was almost impossible to get them out intact. Obviously this wasn’t a problem for pesto, but might have been if you wanted to serve them as nibbles.

Once the cobnuts were shelled (using a cleaver, chopping board and metal skewer), I blitzed them in the food processor along with the chopped beetroot leaves and stems and some rapeseed oil to get a chopped but well bound texture. Olive oil would of course work beautifully here, but I had run out and had to improvise a bit, although the rapeseed oil made this an even more fantastically seasonal British dish! I then added in some grated parmesan and a good grinding of black pepper to finish. Feeling very domesticated I put some of this gorgeously vibrant pesto into a pot for Mister North to take home and the rest in the fridge for me.

We both ate the pesto the next day. He served his stirred through fresh pasta for dinner and I had mine on oatcakes with a sliver or two of Pexommier cheese for lunch and we both loved it. Sweet and earthy, it tasted deliciously fresh compared to traditional basil pesto and the light smooth texture of the cobnuts made it especially creamy and quite light. It needed some extra pepper to lift it completely, but this was otherwise a real seasonal delight!


There’s no excuse to waste any beetroot tops you might have around, and don’t worry if you can’t get cobnuts. Pine nuts or walnuts would be equally lovely. Think pink this week when you’re picking up veg from the garden or the farmers’ market and make this fab pesto for a quick and easy meal!