Ah spring, when the mere mention of ramps can trigger a stampede of foraging-crazed foodies. You'd think that wild foods advocate Russ Cohen would be happy about the surge in popularity of this little, wild leek, but he is not. Cohen is New England's leading expert on foraging, and ever since ramps went gangbusters he's found large swaths of formerly prisitine ramp patches completely destroyed by overeager pickers.
Harmful harvesting techniques also ruin the ramps' sensitive woodland habitat, leaving it ripe for nasty invasive species to move in and ensure that a ramp will never set bulb in the same spot again. Eater spoke with Cohen about how chefs, foragers and consumers can fix what's wrong with ramp madness.
So what is a ramp? A ramp is just a wild leek. It's a member of the same family as conventional onions, garlic, shallots and all that stuff, so it has basically the same flavor. And of course we can grow as many onions, garlic and shallots as we want and have pretty much an inexhaustible supply, but the supply of ramps, which are a native species, is limited. This is a plant that is not cultivated, and so when you see it on a menu or in a produce market, it was gathered from the wild.
What's the special appeal? Oh, you know, it has this sort of cache just like a lot of things do where people are kind of hyperventilating about them. Foodies tend to hyperventilate anyway, about everything. One aspect I guess is that the season is rather short, because it's a spring ephemeral plant. It's sort of this fleeting thing.
Rampwatch2012 is now a hashtag on Twitter - how has that changed things in the woods? I have witnessed places where they used to be, and they are gone. They are completely removed from the landscape. These are plants that were dug up hook, line and sinker and completely absconded with, and my guess is that these are plants that are being sold. I'm observing a bit of a Gold Rush mentality, where people are just converting these plants to cash and looking at them like dollar signs.
What's the alternative? The good news is that you can actually propagate ramps. The New England Wildflower Society and Garden in the Woods in Framingham sell the plants, and people can buy them there and get them started in their own garden and have their own private ramp supply. This is something I'd like to encourage: the more that these plants are grown in gardens, the less we're hammering the wild populations. Or they can practice my sustainable harvesting method.
Which is? Just pick one leaf per plant and leave the bulb in the ground and then you have a golden goose basically, a plant that keeps producing for you. I'm not telling people they shouldn't pick ramps, because ramps are wonderful and it's fun. And if you stick to this method, you won't hurt the plants and you won't hurt the sensitive habitat in which these plants like to grow. And I've actually found that this way is faster, easier on the back and the knees, and also cleaner. You're not getting a speck of dirt on anything. If you gather the leaves this way and bring them home and just throw them in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel and seal up the bag in the little vegetable drawer in your fridge, they'll last several weeks minimum without any deterioration at all. They don't need to have the bulb on there to have the shelf life.
What can ramp lovers who don't do their own foraging do? I don't want to be a hard-ass about this, but I'd like to encourage people, if they see ramps with the bulbs attached, to say you don't have to dig up a ramp to enjoy the flavor, and try to shift the consciousness about this plant to this more sustainable way of interacting with it.
What do you recommend for chefs? Same thing, when they're contracting with the people that supply them, say we don't want the bulbs, we want you to just pick the leaves and leave the bulbs in the ground and ask for the plants that way. And if they need to come up with a different way of calculating the value of the plants because maybe the pickers want the bulbs in there because then the plants weigh more, there's got to be an alternative way of pricing it so that it's not a disadvantage to have leaves only.
Are there other species that chefs could also be using? There's a lot of weeds and invasive species out there that are available at the same time ramps are, so there are lots of alternatives. If you want that oniony, garlicky flavor, there are other species of wild onion and garlic that don't grow in the sensitive habitats like ramps do. They grow more in pastures, at the edge of school ball fields and stuff like that. So harvesting in those places is much less likely to cause any ecological destruction.
That's those chivey looking things that pop up in lawns? That's right.
Could farms plant a row of ramps and harvest them every year? I suppose they could. Let's assume that a farm had the right soil and a shady spot to plant them. If they did as I said and just pick leaves and left the bulbs in the ground, yes, they could establish a small scale supply of ramps that they could draw on.
When you harvest ramps, how do you like to prepare them? To eat them raw puts hair on your chest. Basically, they're quite pungent. Most people don't do that, because they're rather overpowering, but the leaves will sweeten very quickly just by wilting them in a skillet with a little butter. You could throw in a little sherry or Madeira in there too. They're great just that way. You can use the leaves to make ramp butter, sort of like a garlic butter, which is very good, and fold them into omelettes and casseroles and soups and things like that.
Have you seen other wild food fads come and go? Well wild foods in general are really hot right now because of Rene Redzepi and Noma, and there are all these copycats running around. I get calls from chefs saying "I want to be like him for where I am." This one guy said "I want to put Rhode Island on a plate!" I was trying to get him all excited about this invasive seaweed called codium, or green fleece, that is a real scourge in Buzzard's Bay and on Cape Cod. The ecologists really hate it, the shellfishermen really hate it, and it's edible. They make kimchee from it in Korea, and I'd love to see the chefs get excited about that, because if it does become a big fad and people want to see it on menus and people are thrilled to be cooking it, it might even have an upside, because they'd be depleting this plant which is actually harming the place that it grows. It's the opposite impact of the craze about ramps.
[Photo: Russ Cohen]
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