LOCAVORE’S DELIGHT: The Series #1.
Follow us all summer long as we explore the bounty of our region’s farms through the eyes and palate of our own Chef Jay Pierce.
by MOLLY McGINN
If Chef Jay Pierce was in Canada right now, salting this pan of wild ramps, he could get arrested: red hat and all.
In Quebec, ramps are considered a threatened species. The appetite for wild ramps is so widespread, and the vegetable is so scarce, that it’s illegal to hunt the strappy, grayish green cousin to the onion. But here, salting ramps in a kitchen on a mountain top is a legal rite of spring. We’re in the deep back country of the Appalachian Mountains in Dugspur, Virginia.
Ramps are among the many heirloom vegetables still growing wild in the Appalachian Mountains. Cherokee and other Native American tribes hunted ramps here, and, thanks to their conservationist nature and a sparse population of community-minded Appalachian Farmers, such as Diane Flynt, this area is still rich in ramps.
Diane is co-owner of the community-friendly cider farm, Foggy Ridge Cider. Each spring she invites friends, chefs, “people I care about,” to hunt ramps, she says.
Diane makes the Hard Cider in the New Jersey Cocktail, and the First Fruit Cider, now available by the glass, at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen.
“I like to help people understand the whole picture,” Diane says about hunting ramps. “This has been going on ever since people first lived in these mountains.”
There is one, rather serious threat to a ramp hunt, she says.
“Lesson number one: know your poison ivy,” Diane says.
For Native Americans, ramps were the first edible green after a long winter of eating dried and smoked meats. The “spring tonic” is a shot-full of nutrients with the same disease fighting properties of garlic, and ramps are high in Vitamin A and C.
High-end restaurants will pay as much as $25 a pound for ramps. Foodies and chefs prize the green for its scarcity, and unique, onion-garlic flavor.
The ramp life cycle is about 5 years from seed to harvest, and they prefer the steep, vertical mountain ridges near ravines and rivers.
Find them by the look of the strappy leaf, grayish-green, and dusky. Or by smell. Ramps are pungent.
Ready for the hunt? Keep a few key things in mind:
1. Know your poison ivy. “Leaves of three, let them be.” Ramps can grow in the same shady areas as poison ivy.
2. Bring a change of clothes. When you go home, take off your clothes and drop them into the washer. For clarification, see lesson number one.
3. Get the right tools for the job. You should have a ramp hoe, and a sack or basket to carry the ramps.
4. To find ramps, look for a “lily of the valley” grassy leaf above ground and a scallion, garlic-like bulb below ground.
5. Dig, cover, and conserve. Harvest only a few ramps, and when you do, put back the soil and cover the ground.
6. Oh, the odor. Store ramps in the trunk of your car on the ride home, or a well-ventilated area, such as a flat-bed truck. If you must travel with ramps in the back seat of your car, leave the windows open, or pick some honeysuckle to hold under your nose for the ride home.
Read LOCAVORE’s DELIGHT: The Series.