Each spring, the brief season for ramps inspires breathless descriptions on blogs and in food magazines, some say to a fault. Still, I was curious to have the full-on hunter-gatherer foraging experience, so I called my friend John Loeffler, owner of the Inn at Gristmill Square in Warm Springs, Virginia. He assured me that the ramps are indeed in season and volunteered to take me out the next morning.
So I head out of New York on an overnight bus. Late the next morning, armed with gloves, spade, and some loaner muddy boots, we drive a half hour to the Virginia-West Virginia border. Along the way John points out pickup trucks by the side of the road that belong to locals. My guide informs me that because it is after 12 noon, the trucks likely belong to fellow foragers. Apparently, after the wild turkey hunt ends at noon (thanks to state regulations), another hunt begins, this one for morels and ramps. Locals have their own unofficial foraging spots that they return to year after year.
Also known as the Tennesse truffle and the wild leek, the ramp is a seasonal gem known for its pungent, green garlicky aroma (it’s part of the allium family, like onions and garlic), and mildly oniony flavor. Because of its short season—usually end of April to early May—and limited growing area it can fetch from $20 to $25 a pound. John is able to spot them from the car, and I’m mystified. At what seems to me like a random location next to the Williams River, John says, “Here’s a nice spot.” We leave the car and walk up in the mountain in search of our treasure. If you believe The New York Times, ramps are so popular that they’re over-harvested and becoming endangered. But you’d have a hard time convincing me of that, based on the carpets of lush green ramps that I see in the forest.
Gathering ramps is an all-encompassing sort of experience. While you are picking through one patch you start eyeing the next in a trance-like state. John says, “You just wipe [ramps] on your jeans and eat ‘em on the mountain.” Unfortunately, I am wearing khakis. Soon the gloves and the spade are abandoned in favor of digging into the loose, rich, mountain soil with my fingers.
The next morning John and I make scrambled eggs with about a pound of sautéed ramp stems (the white-red stem) folded in with potatoes, bacon, and julienned ramp leaves (the green tops). Although we were going to head out to forage for morels, the rain keeps us indoors.
Instead, we head over to a local friend, Jim, who has invited us for dinner. Here, too, I am amazed by the sheer quantity of ramps that our host has collected in the afternoon. He serves us creamed ramps and deer “ham” steak —a slice cut from the hindquarters of the deer, hence, “Ham.” He marinates and grills it like a steak. The dinner is a revelation. Here I am, the “big city” chef thinking he is going to share vast culinary knowledge and a fondness for foraging to “fly-over America.” Ramps, morels, wild turkeys, trout, deer; all the locals hunt and gather this bounty and it appears in creative ways on their dinner table and I leave amazed.
I have to head home early in the morning, so I pack a liquor box full of ramps destined for Red Rooster Harlem. When I open the door of the rental car the next morning I am almost knocked back by the smell of them, a weirdly pleasant cross between herb-y garlic and ripe gym sneakers. Clutching my stinky prize box I self-consciously weave my way through the layers of mass transportation until I arrive back at Red Rooster, where I plunk down my harvest on the prep table. In stark contrast to the rural Virginia tables where I had enjoyed them in abundance just a day earlier, they are far too valuable to use in scrambled eggs or as a side vegetable in New York. Instead we use a sweet-and-spicy pickle on the stems and we blanch the greens. They both appear as a garnish on our braised short rib. I can’t wait to go back next year.