The first time I had the opportunity to dig ramps I had no idea that I was going to get a cardio work-out. What’s the big deal about pulling up some wild things, thought I. Well, pitch fork, rubber gloves, and trowel in hand and hours later, Steve and I had managed to dig up enough to pickle a couple of jars and have a supper of farm eggs scrambled with ramps and bacon. Not enough to cause celebration but enough to turn us into ramp lovers. Plus, we really did enjoy the time spent in the woods. From that point hence, we have looked forward to our annual spring dig.
This year, as last, our best buddy Lynn, along with her canine pal and our best friend in the whole wide world, Lena Mai, or as we affectionately call her “Leaner” (and the photos will tell you how she came to her nickname), ventured out into the woods on a beautiful spring day last week to round out the dinner menu. Lynn had already mapped the ramp clumps so we didn’t have to go searching for a mass of lily of the valley-like leaves in the awakening spring woods. We did note, however, that the deer had been there first and had nipped off many of the succulent leaves.
Spring had not yet come to the woods – the trees were still bare and just a few wild flowers had burst through the soil. But, it turned out to be quite warm, although windy and damp. We didn’t do a lot of digging, noting that throughout the Northeast ramps are being dug and sold to near extinction. And those that were very small, we put back into the ground. We harvest selectively and tell no one of our secret spots so that next year the clusters will return and we will, once again, embrace one of spring’s great tastes.
Although often described as having a strong onion flavor, I find that the smell is far more aggressive than the flavor. In upstate New York in the old days, I’m told that boys would go out early in the morning and dig ramps so that the smell on their hands and clothes would have the teacher sending them home from school for the day – that’s just how strong the odor can be. I almost prefer the soft, lightly-garlicky taste of the leaves over the shallot-like taste of the white part of the bulb but both add wonderful character to all kinds of dishes. This year, my almost-daughter, Anne, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, pickled her ramps with hard boiled eggs for a great bar snack. I’m not going to pickle this year; we’re just going to enjoy their fresh spring-taste in as many dishes as I can devise.
For those of you who don’t have the opportunity to experience ramps first-hand, they are available at many farmers markets but do remember that they are wild things and need protection from over-harvesting.