I live in a newly built suburb in southwest Ontario, which sounds, perhaps, like the last place imaginable for any indigenous species to inhabit. For those who knew me back in my day, it also sounds perhaps like the last place imaginable for me to inhabit, either. Fortunately, however, the town and the developers maintained a few acres of green space, in which beavers build, deer frolic, foxes stroll, and blue herons strike regal poses. The bunnies, however, just seem to nibble my garden. Little buggers. Perhaps they need to follow a few blog posts on the benefits of woodland foraging, and leave my damn lilies alone (shakes fist, would wave cane if in fact had or needed said cane).
It delights me no end that I can step outside my suburban home with a hand trowel, poke around under a few trees, and come home with dinner. I gain from the experience a deeper connection to the earth and our place in it. I may also gain a few deeply concerned glances from neighbours who wonder what on earth I am doing behind that tree, and if I am OK. If they stop to ask I am very happy to let them know.
I debated the wisdom of posting about foraging for ramps. On the one hand, they are delicious, and finding something delicious in the woods (that requires only digging – not, like, shooting) is surely a deeply satisfying pleasure we should all experience; on the other hand, their deliciousness leads to demand, demand leads to over-foraging for both personal and commercial use, and over-foraging leads to their endangerment in the wild.
Finally, I reasoned, the over-harvesting of ramps is the result of commercial operations. Businesses predicated on selling ramps already know all about ramps – my posting it on a blog that currently has perhaps about two readers – and one is probably my mom – won’t lead to any new businesses descending on forests like a horde of locusts. Right, mom? I’m looking at you, lady – no shady underground ramp harvesting operations for you!
Ramps are a woodland species, requiring the shade of trees and a rich layer of fallen leaves. They are harbingers of spring: you may spot them as you step around puddles left by melting snow, or peer around trees to see new growth. Their bright green shoots grow out of the carpet of decaying grey leaves long before any other spring arrivals. I hope that you too will head off to the woods early next spring to enjoy the earthy smells and feel the warming air on your skin, and that you have the good fortune to discover a patch of these earthy, garlicky, onion-y beauties peeking out of the damp ground behind a tree.
Their leaves are almost unmistakable – they are a brilliant green, with stalks that are usually a rich burgundy colour. Some stalks may be white. If you are not sure, of course, pinch off the tip of one of the stalks and roll it between your fingers. If it has a strong odour of garlic and onions, then congratulations: you will have a spectacular dinner tonight.
As a note on how much to pick when foraging, always leave the majority of what you find untouched. Fortunately, ramps are strongly flavoured – a little goes a long way. Consider the rarity of the species and its germination time when you pick anything. The exception here, of course, is invasive species like my loathed enemy garlic mustard – for those I suggest a scorched earth policy is best.
This spring I went out twice. Of a patch of perhaps 100 ramps, I picked about 15. This was enough for 3 meals for two adults and one small child: ramp pesto with homemade pasta, bacon and eggs with fried ramps and biscuits, and ramp chowder. We fell on each mouthful like hyenas on a weakened wildebeest.
There are many ramp recipes out there, so I won’t worry about posting mine – particularly since I didn’t measure or keep track of of how much I was using. And by the time I thought to take pictures, the food was gone and the kitchen a mess. A better source would be Serious Eats, for example, which has compiled a list of some intriguing ramp recipes.
Finally, I will close with the words of Dr. Scott from Dinosaur Train: “Remember – get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries”. And pull up some freakin’ garlic mustard as you go.