Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are a perennial wild green that look like miniature green onions but with a wider, flatter dark green upper leaf. They can be used, like green onions, raw or quickly sautéed.
I don’t like ramps (or fiddleheads for that matter). Their flavour is far too pungent, like eating raw garlic cloves. But I do 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 unstylish mix of long johns, worn jeans, lumpy wool sweaters, fleece and rubber boots (the red soled, black rubber kind sold at Canadian Tire). The white light from a clear blue sky, not yet filtered through the soft green leaf canopy of the trees, creates stark contrasts. Mounds of snow turn into grainy crystalized ice piles marking cool, shady places. And, those first licks of green emerge from a dark, loamy soil, covered with a thin ragged, gray-black blanket of decaying leaves. Ramps scent the air with a sulphuric tang and are the first sign of life after the earth’s long, cold sleep.
Writing that description is the closest I come to foraging. What I learned from having spent my formative years working and living in some of Canada’s most beautiful, wild places, is 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; Jeremy Charles of Raymonds in St. John's; Nancy Hinton and François Brouillard from Les Jardins Sauvage near Montreal, or at Sinclair Philip’s Sooke Harbour House out west. I trust their connection to the land, and know their approach is educated and their harvest measured.
I’m reminded of my first trip to Europe and travelling east by train from Milan in early spring. As I rode across the countryside I'd occasionally catch sight of someone, usually elderly, stooped over in a culvert looking for what I soon learned were dandelion greens. Later, I enjoyed the green, cooked long and slow with lots of garlic, at Easter lunch with my host family. It was part of this feast because there were people at the table who knew war and hardship. They knew that wild greens made the body more robust, kept uncertainty and death at bay.
In her essay, Now, Forager, Charlotte Druckman points to the important role foraging played in the survival of American slaves. She considers the current culinary obsession through this lens and writes, "It’s the cavalier mis-appropriation of foraging as a trend that offends."
It's a feeble and desperate connection many modern chefs make to the wild. It's commercial survival that's the driver. How many 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 to ensure a return next spring. These trend-chasing wannabes are practicing what I’ve come to dub Noma-lite—a shallow rendering of Danish chef 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 is a tender place, lacking a defense against mindless culls.
The foragers I know are people who long to be in the wild. That need far exceeds anything the wild 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’d like everyone, including most chefs, to purchase from specialty purveyors like Forbes Wild Foods in Ontario, or to leave the preparation of wild ingredients to the few true forager-chefs. Urban dwellers can take to the woods by virtually trailing our few Canadian masters in the beautiful video series In The Weeds.
I don’t want to wonder, when I see bags of ramps sold in upscale grocery stores or spot a sauté on every corner bistro menu, if those green leaves have been stripped completely from my first spring walk in the woods.