General Information:  The emergence through the damp soil of the highly aromatic leaves of bärlauch is a defining moment of spring in Switzerland. It is unclear how this relative of the chive family acquired its name, but at least two theories seem to prevail. Some say the bärlauch (bear’s leek) was so named because brown bears, which were once prevalent throughout central Europe, enjoyed eating the plant after awakening from their winter hibernation. Another version claims the name came from the early middle ages when the plant’s medicinal and strengthening qualities were first discovered. It was purported to have qualities that made one as strong as a bear. In any case, the bärlauch continues to be popular throughout Switzerland and southern Germany. Bärlauch is used in a variety of ways, similar to Ramsons (UK) and Ramps (US), to flavor soups, salads, egg dishes, sauces, oils, and even sausages. At one time during the 1800’s, farmers would feed their cows a heavy diet of bärlauch in the Spring in order to flavor the milk (and subsequently the butter and cheese) with the distinctive garlic-like flavor.

Warnings: There are several important factors to consider when foraging for your own bärlauch. First, always wash bärlauch very well in several changes of water to rid the leaves of any dried fox excrement. Fox excrement often carries tape worm eggs, which can be quite unpleasant when consumed. Second, don’t confuse bärlauch with two other very similar-looking plants. Herbstzeitlöse (colchicum autumnale) can appear next to bärlauch. The larger leaves of this plant are extremely harmful, and can be deadly in some instances. Also growing within bärlauch is the Maiglöckchen (convaldaria majalis), which is not fatal, but it will lead to severe discomfort including a slow heart rate, slight dizziness, throwing up, or diarrhea. There are several methods you can use to distinguish bärlauch from their harmful neighbors. One method is to look carefully at the stem holding the leaf. Bärlauch stems are always white and always underground. The Maiglöckchen has an above-ground stem which is green at the top and red at the bottom. Herbstzeitlöse have larger stems which are grouped (they look like a young tulip plant). Another method is to look at the root of the plant. Herbstzeitlöse have a large onion-like root, Maiglöckchen have roots which extend horizontal in the ground and are without any onion-like bulge. Bärlauch have a small onion-like root. Finally, if you are not sure, then simply go to your nearest market and buy what you need.

Season: Young bärlauch are available from about mid-March. The season extends through April.

Purchasing Tips: Look for brightly colored leaves (the under-side should always be a matte green color and not glossy like the top of the leaf), which do not have any dark spots. The leaves should be firm without showing any limpness or tiredness.

Storage: Like most leaves, bärlauch will dehydrate quickly and begin to lose their nutrients once they are harvested. It is best to consume bärlauch quickly, but they will keep refrigerated for 3-5 days. Keep them loosely wrapped in a plastic bag.

Cooking Tips: The distinctive garlic-like flavor of bärlauch is most assertive when the leaves are consumed raw. Quick cooking or blanching will tame the flavor of bärlauch, pushing the aromas to the background. Younger leaves are considered the finest to use. The flavor increases in pungency as the season matures. Although the entire plant is edible, the leaves are often the only part of the plant that are consumed. Use bärlauch like your favorite herb to flavor a variety of dishes, or to make interesting soups or sauces. Bärlauch is often used to make flavored oil, soups, pesto, potato salads, and even sausages.

Nutritional Info: Bärlauch chases the winter away! It has an excellent antioxidant value, which has been known for centuries. Bärlauch works against internal infections, and may even reduce harmful cholesterol.

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