By Melissa Howes-Vitek
Ah, the pungent smell of garlic and the strong taste of onion. To a fan, nothing says spring quite like a ramp. Available only for a brief for-to-six week window during March and Early April, these tiny, stinky, yet delicious, wild onions create quite a stir!
As one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, ramps were historically consumed as the first “greens” after a long winter without access to many fresh fruits and vegetables. They were celebrated as one of Mother Nature’s gifts of health and nutrition, as ramps are a great source of vitamins A and C.
Allium tricoccum, otherwise known as RAMP, SPRING ONION, WILD LEEK, and/or WILD GARLIC, is an early spring perennial wild onion. Ramps are found across much of the eastern United States and eastern Canada but are highly concentrated in the Appalachian mountain region. While they have been a popular ingredient in local rural cuisine and the star of many ramp festivals for generations, they are gaining popularity in fine dining and farm-to-table restaurants throughout North America.
Wild Leeks (Ramps) are much smaller than their big, domestic brothers that line the grocer’s produce shelves. They can be acquired by foraging, that is if you can find them. Ramps can be found growing in patches in rich, moist soils deep in deciduous forests.
Die-hard fans of ramp hunting, harvesting, and eating are usually extremely generous when sharing their harvest, but they are not as willing to share the location of ramp patches- and with good reason! Wild Leeks need care when you harvest- once a leek is plucked from the ground, it will not grow back. If you decide to hunt and harvest them yourself, preservation guidelines suggest you should take 5 percent or less from any one patch to allow that patch of wild leek to remain sustainable.
If you’ve set your sights on purchasing ramps, your best bet will be the local farmer’s market, early in the morning, on the first day they open, and expect them to be very expensive. Ramps don’t keep for long and there is a limited supply, so don’t wait. When and if you score a bunch, keep them unwashed, wrapped in paper, and in the refrigerator for no longer than a week. Some ramp aficionados have tricks to freeze them successfully, but the techniques are many and varied.
Home cooks traditionally serve ramps fried, along with bacon and potatoes, but they are also quite popular added into scrambled eggs. Baked into cornbread or mixed into a basic bean dish are other ways that ramps have found their way onto the dinner tables of many generations.
Ramp Festivals are a great way to get a taste of this Appalachian cuisine and history. “The Feast of the Ramson” in Richwood, W. VA. claims the title of the longest-running ramp celebration in the world. The “Ramps and Rails Festival” is another large and popular celebration held in Elkins, W. VA. it is interesting to note that nearly every inquiry into ramp festivals led to one caveat- always call ahead to make certain the festival hasn’t been cancelled or the dates haven’t been changed. Ramps aren’t only stinky, they are persnickety. Weather conditions affect crop yields, and if the weather hasn’t cooperated, then sadly no ramps for festivals.
So whether you manage to find a ramp patch to harvest, score a bundle at the local market, or travel anywhere along the East Coast to one of the many festivals that celebrate this short-lived woodland delicacy, ENJOY IT! Savor every bite and cherish the experience. You’ve just become and exclusive member of the ramp club.