Spring has sprung,
Winter has went,
It was not did by accident.
My grandmother always said that about this time of year. And with spring comes a bunch of nourishing wild vegetables. Ramps, ramsons or wild leeks, are one of the earliest to emerge, and, for some, they're the holy grail of wild edibles. Early settlers relied on their restorative qualities after long, hungry winters. The high vitamin C in ramps has saved many a mountaineer from scurvy and other nutritional maladies. Modern foragers dream all year about that uniquely pungent garlicky-onion flavor... the same flavor that odiferously permeates your pores to effectively stave off man and beast.
Unfortunately for ramps, they're super-trendy these days. Chefs and foodies flock to the mountains for a chance to bask in their gourmet-ness. "Ramp feeds," known as ramp festivals now, have been taking a toll on ramp populations for years and the added pressure of their recent popularity has really put a hurting on their numbers. The implications affect conservationists and foodies alike. Cindy and I are conservationists first and foragers second. What this means for us is that ramping is not only unsustainable, but it gets more arduous each year as we climb higher and longer to find undiscovered ramp patches.
Traditionally, the Cherokee dug, and still dig, ramps by leaving the roots. This is done by cutting off the bottom of the bulb with a pocket knife while it's still in the ground. It's really a simple process.
Tools For Harvesting Ramps Sustainably
This one is really important. It's way too easy to run up to the ramp patch after work with good intentions of sustainbly digging ramps. You get to the trailhead at 5:30pm and it's 6pm by the time you're digging ramps. The sun's about to slip behind the mountains and you're in a sudden hurry to get your ramps and get out of there. So you abandon your plan and jerk as many roots out of the ground as you can before running out. DON'T DO IT! Sustainably harvesting ramps takes more time, so you really need to make allowance for it. Plus it's a lot more fun to have a leisurely walk into the woods, not worrying about racing the waning light. If you can't give yourself the time to do it, please consider taking only greens and leaving the bulbs undisturbed.
Pretty self-explanatory--you just need a small digging implement to get down to the roots.
- Sharp knife
Make sure it's sharp! A dull knife will do more harm than good--you'll end up mutilating the bulb so it's not useable as food and not viable as a plant. You may even want to touch up the blade as you dig, since the grit of the dirt will take your edge. I just use a pocket knife with about a two inch blade. Anything bigger can be cumbersome.
- Backpack or shoulder bag
I usually put a few plastic grocery bags in a backpack and then load a bag or two with ramps before putting them in my pack, which helps keeps the dirt out of the pack.
How to Harvest Ramps Sustainably
To sustainably dig ramps, using a trowel or digging stick, gently pull back the dirt from around the bulb, being careful to leave the roots in the ground. Pull back just enough dirt to expose a little bit of the bulb so you can see where to put your knife. Then carefully cut away the bottom third of the bulb with roots, leaving them in the ground. Then re-cover the roots with dirt and leave them to grow next year. That's all there is to digging. Please be judicious and don't take any more than you will use. I find that, when I overzealously harvest, it makes more work for me in the long run, because some ramps will inevitably go bad before I can get to them. There's not much more disgusting than the smell of past-their-prime ramps. And a few ramps go a long way so there's no need to stockpile them.
Even though we practice sustainable harvest, I'm afraid the ever-inceasing demand will eclipse the slow procreation.
So we've been looking into the possibility of cultivating our own ramps. I've always heard they'll survive almost anywhere in our Southern Appalachian region but will only propagate above 3000 feet. We've successfully transplanted ramps that come back each year but our little patch hasn't spread (it's below 3000 ft.). According to North Carolina Extension Horticultural Specialist Jeanine M. Davis, ramps can be transplanted and cultivated from seed at much lower elevations. Apparently, it takes some effort to germinate seeds when climes are warmer than ideal, but it can be done. And once a good patch is established, it supposedly requires little maintenance. Jeanine recommends the book Having Your Ramps and Eating Them Too by the "Johnny Appleseed of Ramps" for more info on cultivating ramps.
Storing & Preserving Ramps
Ramps are only in season for a month or so, but, for us, getting them is only half the problem. I usually come back from a good ramping trip with several pounds: enough for us to eat fresh before they go bad with a little extra to keep for eating later (I rarely go digging more than once a season unless I come home with a particularly light harvest). The bulbs are easy enough to freeze. To freeze them, we clean them up, pat them dry and put in a Mason jar. They do tend to stick together later, so sometimes we lay them on a sheet pan and freeze before putting them in jars. Frozen ramps will keep for six months or so.
The greens, my favorite part, don't last more than a few days and they don't freeze well. The best way we've found to save them is by making ramp compound butter which will last six months in the fridge and a year in the freezer. It's really good and really easy (see recipe below)
Cooking & Eating Ramps
Some folks like to eat ramps raw. I like a little chopped up in a salad, but ramps as a cooked vegetable are a lot more fun. My favorite way to eat them is mixed into venison burgers or in ramp and white cheddar soup. And it's hard to beat ramps and eggs for breakfast.
A few years back, Cindy came across this sweet little book from West Virginia called Mom & Ramps Forever! by Barbara Beury McCallum. There's some fun anecdotal history on ramps in there. It's also a collection of old timey recipes and stand-bys like pickled ramps and ramp champ - mashed potatoes with ramps. Here's one of the recipes... quick and easy and sounds tasty:
Ramps With Watercress
"Fry some bacon until crisp, remove the bacon then drain off part of the bacon drippings. Put washed cress into the pan with the water that clings to it. Cook covered, until tender. Garnish with crumpled bacon, finely chopped ramps, and some chopped hard cooked eggs."
Unfortunately, Mom & Ramps Forever! is out of print, but it's a nice one for the collection if you can find it.
1 lb. softened butter
1 to 2 cups ramp greens, chopped
2 Tbls freshly squeezed lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a food processor until smooth and pack in small containers.
Use just as you would garlic butter.