I knew the teaching tunnel would be full of lessons.
I didn’t expect the first lesson to come so quickly, or on the drive home.
The first time I saw the sign I was cruising at 60 mph toward Shingletown.
LEEKS RAMPS FOR SALE
A memory fluttered for a moment. No. It couldn’t be. The place must sell some type of truck ramp for DIY oil changes or something.
The next trip back from the teaching tunnel, Marina and my mom were in the car.
“Did you see that sign? Did it say Ramps?”
Marina hadn’t noticed. I was doing a double take, again, at 60 mph.
“I think it said Ramps. Ramps are like wild garlic and supposed to be delicious. They’re available for just a short time in the spring. Maybe they’re just selling truck ramps…but hey, this is spring. Maybe they have the ramps you eat.”
I made a U-turn.
Years ago, a big fellow stopped by Fleur-de-Lys Farm Market. He saw our Garlic Greens sign and wanted to know if we sold ramps. I had never heard of ramps (aka Allium tricoccum) but the seed was planted, so to speak. Some time after that, when my chef-phew Wille was working at Bucks County’s Yardley Inn, he said if we had ramps growing in our woods, the restaurant would buy them all. No such luck.
At the 2013 PASA conference I took a class on wildcrafting—foraging for uncultivated edible plants—and once again, ramps raised their broad, flat green leaves from the litter of the forest floor and waved at me. I even asked my co-worker Sharon if her dad had ramps growing in the wilds of his Rebersburg woodlands. We talked about escaping the office and gathering ramps and morels and other such delights of Penn’s Woods. We’d call ourselves The Wild Women. But alas, Sharon’s dad told her there were no ramps to be found.
A fellow, probably in his 70s, climbed out of the truck. Marina and I approached him. He introduced himself as John. I asked if he had ramps. Not now, but he would on Monday. On Saturday he would drive to his place in McKean County, dig up the wild leeks, and return Sunday. Bushels of ramps would be available Monday for several local restaurants, and yes, I could buy some too. (McKean County is in the northwest section of the state known as the “Pennsylvania Wilds.”)
“They’re small this time of year,” John said, holding his calloused hands about 6 inches apart, “but they’re so good. Filled with vitamins and minerals.”
In Appalachia, ramps are the traditional spring tonic, warding off a long winter’s ailments. And what a long winter it was. I read that ramps are often cooked in bacon fat and served with a heapin’ helpin’ of eggs, potatoes, and bacon. Ramp festivals celebrate the allium in North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia, all the way up to Quebec, where the French-Canadians call them “ail des bois”.
The spring ephemeral grows in cool, shady areas where you might find Mayapples or trout lilies. It emerges from the damp humus in late March or early April before the tree canopy fills in. By late May, the leaves of the perennial bulb die back, the flower stalk shoots up, and in June, the plant flowers and sets seed. Researchers at North Carolina State University found that seeds can take anywhere from 6 to 18 months to germinate. All in all, if you’re trying to cultivate ramps from seed to root harvest, expect to wait five to seven years.
But John is fortunate. Mother Nature takes care of the process for him. On spring weekends he returns to the 20 or so acres of his childhood homestead where the woodland floor spreads out in a sea of green—ramps rising from the thawing soil. Even with the bounty, careful harvest is required so the native population is not depleted.
When I returned to J.L. Farm on Monday, John greeted me with disappointing news. His restaurant clients were expecting 200 pounds of ramps. He had nothing to sell them. “There’s still snow up there.” He opened a black garbage bag filled with slimy, blackened leaves. Tucked in among them were a tangle of ramp roots and bulbs, barely sprouting. He was going to spend the evening planting them in his greenhouse beds to grow them out to saleable size. He cupped a few in his hand and then went to a raised bed where a few ramps were showing their stuff, survivors of John’s marauding chickens.
“These are a tonic for people, deer, even turkeys. Thins the blood. Your daughter has to taste these before she goes back to Belgium,” he said, placing a fistful in a paper bag. “They have a spark. Make you feel like a wild Indian.”
For Marina’s last Momma-cooked meal, I made Fasta Pasta chipotle penne with a sauce of bacon drippings, bacon, and diced ramps, sprinkled with Romano cheese. Comfort food, ramp style. Laurie Lynch
Gourmet Giggle: In the midst of my tramping for ramps I was emailing chef-phew Wille about my progress. Long after the dinner dishes were done, I returned to my email and found this:
“Awesome! I would glaze them and serve them whole on a side of pureed parsnips with fish. Top with a nice sauce to finish it off and a whiff of fresh rosemary. Hit with some nasturtiums for that extra little zip and eye candy. Let me know how it works out.”
I guess that is next week’s project.