Real Food Encyclopedia | Ramps
The humble ramp (aka, the wild leek, or ramson) has enjoyed a cult-like following for decades. Their fleeting appearance around the spring equinox sends people into a tizzy and is cause for online alerts when they arrive at many a farmers’ market. Much ado about a wild onion? Perhaps.
Ramps are definitely delicious — a peppery and pungent cross between onion and garlic — and their ephemeral nature adds to their appeal. Yet, despite their beloved flavor and growing fan base of eaters, the plant has an equally loud coalition of environmentalists who argue they should be left unharvested. But even so, after a long winter, when you’re down to dinged up apples, sad looking squash and root vegetables, the sighting of ramps is undeniably the first herald of spring.
Before their rise to seasonal star ingredient, ramps (Allium tricoccum) trace back to modest origins in Appalachia where they are still foraged in the wild. Ramps are a welcome sign of spring in the eastern mountain states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where they are very much a part of the regional food culture. Residents have been holding annual ramp dinners and festivals for almost a century. Classic recipes include ramps and “taters” and cornbread with ramps. There’s even a whole cookbook devoted to ramps, although with a decidedly upmarket spin.
Allegedly European settlers in the region learned to gorge on ramps from the Native Americans, who saw the herb as a spring tonic and a blood cleanser. There might not be any hard science to back these claims, but the folk medicine persists to this day. Native Americans such as the Cherokee also allegedly ground up ramps to use as a poultice on bug bites.
Fun Facts about Ramps:
- Ramps are members of the lily family and a cousin to onions and garlic.
- The Latin word for ramps, Allium ursinium, derives from the Old English word for bear leek. While similar, the ramp as we know it in the United States is native to North America, not Europe. It seems that the resemblance between the two plants led to the word ramp being co-opted for tricoccum.
- To add to the confusion, ramps are sometimes referred to as wild garlic, which is actually a completely different plant. Wild garlic (also known as crow garlic, or vineale) is an invasive species that you probably dug up in the backyard as a kid, making your hands smell of garlic.
- Ramps grow wild as far north as Quebec, as far south as Georgia and as far west as Oklahoma.
- Richwood, West Virginia claims to be the ramp capital of the world.
- Ramps are colloquially referred to as the King of Stinkin Appalachia.
What to Look for When Buying Ramps
Ramps have a delicate look about them with slender white stems that turn burgundy at the base and two leaves fanning out in a v-shape akin to a crocus.
Ramps are sold in farmers’ markets by the bunch and they look very similar to spring onions. What distinguishes them are their broad leaves, purplish stems and pungent garlic smell. Look for leaves without the bulb that are fresh and not wilted.
If you’re scouting ramps in the wild, be conscientious. Look for clumps of broad, smooth leaves growing from the woodland floor. Using a trowel, pull back the leaf litter and soil to expose the top of the white bulbs and burgundy stems and only clip the leaves. To confirm that that you’ve found ramps, break off a piece of leaf and give it the sniff test. Does it smell like onions or garlic? Yes? Good for you. But practice sustainable foraging — only harvest about 15 to 25 percent of the clump, otherwise there will be no ramps for the next season. And only harvest from healthy beds, not areas that have already been overharvested.
Note that ramps look very similar to the poisonous Lily of the Valley, probably owing to the fact that they are from the same family. So sniff before you taste.
Sustainability of Ramps
Foragers have been accused of over-collecting and damaging future populations of ramps by harvesting too frequently and digging from the bulb. As ramps’ popularity has increased, this reckless behavior has obliterated much of their wild growth.
In response and in an attempt to preserve wild ramp populations, several North American bans on ramp collection have been put in place. In North Carolina and Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park the practice of foraging for ramps was banned when a study confirmed that the only way to protect ramp patches was to harvest under 10 percent every 10 years. Quebec banned the commercial sale of ramps in 1995, limiting harvesting to personal consumption only. Yet, almost comically, a black market has erupted amongst foragers who can fetch a pretty penny by selling the contraband in the nearby providence of Ontario.
Once an area has been cleared of ramps, there is evidence of non-native plants coming in and claiming the land. And reseeding isn’t as easy as it sounds, as it takes around a year for seeds to germinate and between five and seven years to reach maturity.
The number one most sustainable way to harvest ramps is without their bulbs, though you might find that finding bulbless ramps at market is a challenge. Ask your farmer about their practices and why they’ve chosen to harvest ramps with the bulb attached.
The ramp season runs for short two months, from April to May — sometimes starting as early as late March if the weather is on the warmer side. This transitory quality helps contribute to ramps’ perceived value.
Ramps and Geography
According to “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink,” about 85 percent of ramps consumed come from the wild, where they grow amongst the leaf litter in the rich, moist soil of the forest. As the tree canopy grows denser with new growth, increasingly blocking out sunlight, ramps wither and their fleeting season ends. In the American South, when ramps are at their peak, the parked cars of foragers line the highways and folks tromp into the woods with boxes to fill with ramps. Ramps like to grow in the sandy soil near streams or close to beech, birch, poplar and maple trees.
Should you have access to similar wild conditions — shade, moist soil rich in organic matter — it is possible to grow your own ramps. Seeds are available for purchase on the internet and should be planted in the fall. Agricultural studies reveal, however, that while ramps can be cultivated for commercial use, they should be grown in a forest environment. Glen and Norene Facemire in Richwood, West Virginia claim to have the only ramp farm in the world.
Storing Fresh Ramps
Once foraged, ramps only last three or four days before perishing. To store, loosely wrap in a paper towel and place in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag. Ramps can be frozen, but we suggest freezing the bulbs and using the leaves fresh.
Cooking with Ramps
Ramps, unlike conventional leeks, require little cleaning. Just give them a good rinse, trim the root hairs and they are ready for cooking. You can also eat them raw if you’re feeling especially adventurous, but remember, they are called the King of Stink for a reason!
Ramps are a seasonal substitute for any recipe that calls for spring onions, scallions or garlic. Ramps have a peppery, garlicky bite that adds fresh flavor to a number of dishes. They can be sautéed, chopped up and added to scrambled eggs, pickled or served in a springtime risotto.
Ramps are high in Vitamins A and C. They are consumed as a folk medicine in Appalachia as a spring tonic to cleanse the blood.