We went out to explore the Caledon area Sunday afternoon, and there, by the side of the road, among the leaves in a stand of hardwood trees was second wild crop of the spring season.
Maple syrup is first. Wild garlic or wild leek is second.
Wild garlic/leek is also called ramp, which, according to John Mariani, author of “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the word ramp comes from “rams,” or “ramson,” an Elizabethan dialect rendering of the wild garlic.
This wild plant is indigenous to North America (how did the Elizabethans find them?). They grow in hardwood forests from the Carolinas north to Ontario and Quebec. In Tennessee and West Virginia they celebrate their arrival with many festivals and events. This past weekend, in fact, Richwood West Virginia celebrated the Feast of the Ramson at the Richwood High School starting at 10:30 a.m. That might be a little early in the morning for the very strong onion/garlic taste of ramson, but it is quite good as a flavour for scrambled eggs.
Richwood is home to the N.R.A. – the National Ramp Association – and one of the areas most celebrated proponent of wild leeks was a fellow named Bato Crites. He has passed away now but was known as the Ramp King of Nicholas County West Virginia, and in the Appalachian Mountains. He used to say there was nothing like ramp to flavour a dish… and people in the area celebrate his passion every year when those green leaves appear. The flavour and aroma of ramps is a combination of onions and very strong garlic. In fact, celebrations are often nicknamed “stinky weekends” as the scent may keep friends at a distance for a few days.
Cautions aside, ramps add wonderful flavour to soups, egg dishes, casseroles, rice dishes and potato dishes. They’re easy to clean. Just clean off the dirt, give them a rinse and cut off the roots. Use them raw or cooked in any recipe calling for scallions or leeks, or cook them in a more traditional way, scrambled with eggs or fried with potatoes. The leaves are much more tender than cultivated leeks, and their flavour is milder so you can cut them up and use them to add flavour.
It’s a very short season, and before you dig some up, find out about any local restrictions. In Quebec, for instance, commercial gathering is illegal and there are limits to the amount individuals can possess. And when you dig, please don’t take any more than a few from each bunch.
OK, I just heard back from John Mariani who explained the Elizabethan connection to the name. The term ramp in England referred to the wild garlic plant Arum Maculatum. It was also called cockopintell and wake robin. The English came up with some great names for things. Anyway, when they English arrived on this continent, they found Allium tricoccum, and called it ramp as well. In the same way, they called the American fowl turkey because it resembled the guinea fowl that came by way of the country of Turkey and they called the thrush “robin” because it looked somewhat similar to the English robin.