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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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.