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Never mind the pre-summer "hungry gap" – a little wild garlic will fill the void

It's a tough life being a foodie, but fear not - a sumptuous delicacy awaits in our still damp woodlands between April and June.

Truly, I don’t think anyone realises how hard it is being a foodie. The sun comes out, everyone else is merrily scoffing Spanish strawberries, and we’re still stuck chewing gloomily on dreary old carrots and spuds and piously awaiting “the season”.

At the moment, Britain is stuck in the middle of what’s traditionally known as “the hungry gap” – those tedious weeks when cold-weather crops are coming to an end but there’s not yet enough warmth for the new season’s stuff.

We’ve endured a particularly painful, protracted winter this year, and I’ll be honest – that Peruvian asparagus was starting to look dangerously tempting after all, who’d ever find out?). Thanks to the prolonged meteorological misery, Guy Watson of Riverford Organic Farms calculates that some crops are a fortnight behind schedule. So, no need to dust off that hollandaise recipe just yet.

But there is light at the end of the polytunnel, and all you need is a clean plastic bag to catch it. I’m talking foraging, or getting all Tom and Barbara and gathering your own dinner in the great outdoors.

A brisk, purposeful walk is actually the best way to appreciate the glories of mother nature in early spring: although I cherish the British commitment to pretending the weather’s better than it is, to be frank, you’ll catch your death lolling about in that damp grass – or, at the very least, give yourself piles. Much better to set off with a mission and a carrier bag and score some free food in the process.

Now, I’m not going to bombard you with information about prickly berries, or sweet chestnuts, because there just aren’t any in May. There’s the odd mushroom – the St George’s and the fairy ring – if you know what you’re doing but just as in the greengrocers this month, the pickings are pretty scarce.

Don’t lose heart though, because it’s the season for something that’s both easy to spot and nice enough to make it on to proper restaurant menus. You know, the kind people actually pay to eat.

No, I’m not about to bang on about nettles, which, for all the hype, I’ve always found to make bland, oddly furry soup (and I’ve not yet got over the shame of paying 50p for a bag at a London farmers’ market), or diuretic dandelions, for which its French name, pissenlit, should serve as sufficient warning.

I’m talking about ransoms, or wild garlic, which run rampant in damp woodland and shady areas from April until June. You’ll often smell the carpet of broad, spear-shaped leaves, with their delicate white flowers, before you see it: it’s pretty pungent stuff. It tastes less aggressive than the scent suggests – I always think it has an intensely green flavour, like a mixture of garlic and freshly cut grass. (Just the thing to remind you haven’t got the mower out yet this year, eh?)

The bulbs are also supposed to be a delicacy, but if you p ull them up, there won’t be any garlic next year, so like a good little forager, I generally content myself with a big bag of leaves instead.

They’re best used fresh (and well-washed, especially if, like mine, they hail from a scruffy London park full of Staffies) but if you have to store it in the fridge for any length of time, I’d strongly suggest the purchase of an airtight box, or everything from eggs to yoghurt will stink like a comedy Frenchman’s armpit.

A necessary caution, but one that makes wild garlic sound less appetising than it actually is: so far I’ve stirred it through scrambled eggs and made a punchy green mayonnaise for a new potato salad, and I still have two jars of emerald green hazelnut and wild garlic pesto sitting tight in the fridge awaiting the inevitable midweek pasta in a panic.

What’s more, unlike fragrant British berries, or spindly asparagus, it was completely free. And in foodie world, you really can’t get smugger than that.

Next issue: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.