Very soon, food lovers across Canada will seek release from the long winter. Sunshine-filled, warm spring days will tempt them to throw open their doors and take to the woods searching for ramps. In short order, hip restaurants across this beautiful country will be stuffing their menus with this wild green, and ramp chatter will clog social media feeds. You'd think we still lived in a time when salt pork, navy beans, and turnips were all that filled our winter larders.
Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are a perennial wild green that looks like a small green onion but with a broad shiny dark green leaf. I don't like them much (or fiddleheads). I find the flavour too pungent. But I love them in the wild.
There's nothing better than going for spring's first mucky walk in the woods, clothed against the damp and chill in a warm and wholly unstylish mix of long johns, worn jeans, layers of lumpy wool sweaters and fleece, and rubber boots—the black kind with the red soles from Canadian Tire. The white light from a clear blue sky, not yet filtered softly through the leafy tree canopy, creates stark contrasts. Mounds of snow turn into grainy crystalline ice piles marking cool, shady places. And, those first licks of green emerge from a dark, loamy soil with a raggedy grey blanket of leaf decay. Walk through them and the air turns sulphuric. Ramps are the first sign of life after the earth's deep, cold sleep.
Writing that description is the closest I come to foraging. I learned from having spent my formative years working and living in some of Canada's most beautiful, wild places that we go to the woods to receive, not to take.
That doesn't mean that I don't believe in foraging or marking the arrival of a new season with a feast. I love chef Michael Stadtlander's annual Wild Leek Festival. I would happily eat anything (even ramps and fiddleheads) from thoughtful and sensitive forager chefs like Michael Caballo of Toronto's Edulis restaurant, or buy the goods at Jean-Talon market from Nancy Hinton and François Brouillard of Les Jardins Sauvages in Quebec. I trust their connection to the land and know the harvest is mindful.
I'm reminded of my first trip to Europe and travelling east by train from Milan to Padova in early spring. Looking out the window at the passing countryside, I'd occasionally catch a glimpse of someone, usually elderly, stooped over in a ditch looking for what I soon learned was Cicoria or young dandelion greens destined for a salad bowl. Later, I enjoyed the mature greens cooked long and slow with lots of garlic at Easter lunch with new friends. It was part of this meal because there were people at the table who knew war and hardship. They knew wild greens made the body robust, kept uncertainty and death at bay.
In her essay, Now, Forager, Charlotte Druckman points to the critical role foraging played in the survival of America's Black slaves. She considers the current culinary obsession through this lens and writes, "It's the cavalier misappropriation of foraging as a trend that offends."
It's a feeble and desperate connection many modern chefs make to the wild—commercial survival is the driver. How many of them take to the woods with any sense of what is enough or when to stop? The current market appetite can trump the need to leave enough for others or ensure a return next spring. These trend-chasing wannabes are practising what I've come to dub Noma-lite—a shallow rendering of René Redzepi's studied and thoughtful practice.
I shudder to think of the abuses heaped on our wild environs in the same way I cringe whenever I see Martha Stewart shilling some craft project that calls for found items from the forest. Amateur enthusiasts often don't know that the wild can be a tender place, lacking a defence against mindless culls.
The foragers I know are people who long to be in the wild. That need exceeds anything it will yield. They often prefer the subtle communications of nature to that of humans. They've usually apprenticed to a master, never flaunt their expertise and respect tradition. They know their place and their responsibilities to the cycle of life and death.
I'd be happy with less ramp madness this year. I'm encouraging enthusiastic urban dwellers to consume wild goods with a conscience—to eat and enjoy in a manner befitting a finite resource. I encourage everyone, including most chefs, to purchase from speciality purveyors like Forbes Wild Foods in Ontario or leave the preparation of wild ingredients to the few authentic forager chefs. Urban dwellers can take to the woods and virtually trail the masters in the beautiful video series, In The Weeds.
When I see bags of ramps sold in posh markets or spot a sauté on every corner bistro menu, I don't want to wonder if those green leaves have been stripped entirely from my first spring walk in the woods.