The ramp pickers are already on the prowl in West Virginia.
Ramps, or wild leeks, have long been prized in Appalachia as one of the first edibles to pop out of the ground after a long winter, short in fresh vegetables. In recent years, however, the ramp, once dismissed as hillbilly food, is making its way onto more and more haute cuisine menus.
As it turns out, those hillbillies know a thing or two about taste.
Two prime factors figure in the ramp’s newfound appeal for master chefs.
First, the wild leek, like the morel or the truffle, can be hard to find. It is available for only a few weeks in early spring. Once harvested, ramps do not keep well beyond a few days. And even though the wild leek can be found from the maritime provinces of Canada all the way down to South Carolina, it tends to grow sparsely — except in a few regions. The remote hardwood slopes of the southern Appalachians number among those regions. In West Virginia, from early to mid-April, north- and east-facing slopes erupt with intensely green ramps, pushing their way through the rich leaf litter.
Adding to the rarity is the wild leek’s slow development. Ramp seeds can take 18 months to germinate. Once the plant takes root, it may need up to 10 years for its slender white bulb to achieve the right size for optimum flavor.
The second reason is the unique taste. The ramp is often described as a cross between onion and garlic, only more pungent. Many complain about the ramp’s smell, with the southern ramp reputed to be more odiferous than its northern cousin. In this aficionada’s opinion, none of those perceptions is quite on the mark. Certainly, the nose and the taste buds will readily identify the wild leek as a member of the same family as onion and garlic. But the wild version has a strong undertone of earthiness, plus a gentle sweetness. Contemptuous of those recipes warning against adding too much ramp to any dish, this ramp-lover often eats the wild leek raw — something she would be reluctant to do with garlic, unless ingesting the raw garlic clove for medicinal (antibiotic) purposes.
The ramp has its share of medicinal uses, too. In the southern highlands, ramps have a long tradition as a blood tonic, to address circulatory “sluggishness” and a buildup of toxins after a winter of eating dried meat and canned vegetables. The ramp is a good source of Vitamins C, K, A and B6, of cancer-busting antioxidants and such minerals as iron and manganese. The Cherokees of Appalachia also applied crushed ramp bulbs to insect bites.
I would much prefer to apply chopped ramp bulbs and leaves (lightly sautéed) to the inside of an omelet, along with asparagus and shiitakes. Like most ramp-harvesters, I’ll share my recipe, but not the location of my ramp stash.
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern Region), Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1979