All Hail the Ramp: Why People are Obsessed with Wild Leeks

With the advent of mass-production agriculture, foodies have developed a taste (sometimes bordering on obsession) for everything seasonal, wild, hard-to-obtain - and usually expensive. In the past few years, ramp, or wild leek, seems to have become a veritable king of this market. Why such popularity?

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From the food of slaves to expensive delicacy

Ramp, or Allim tricoccum, grows naturally in the forests of North America; it is one of the first edible plants to appear in spring, so for centuries it served Cherokee Indians as protection against scurvy after a hard winter. With the arrival of Europeans, ramps were eaten by slaves and the poor; gradually they conquered a place in the traditional Appalachian cooking.

It is only in the 1990’s that ramps started appearing on the menus in big cities like New York; but once they did, a craze soon followed. Farmers’ markets were assaulted by ramp lovers, and some people went so far as to get ramp tatoos! You can read more on the history of the ramp craze here. The city of Richmond in West Virginia is considered the ramp capital of the world, holding an annual festival. Unfortunately, ramp patches suffer from overforaging and unsustainable harvesting; in those places where foraging for ramps is illegal, real black market has sprung up (read the full story here).

The ramp season lasts from March till late May, and the price varies between 10 and 15 dollars per pound (up to 35 dollars per kilogram!).

How do you eat ramps?

Some ramp aficionados just eat them raw – they taste like a mix of onion and garlic, and their smell is really pungent. You can add them to salads and omelettes, make pesto and gnocchi, saute them with butter and bacon, preserve them, make rump butter… Look here for some recipes.

To be fair, while ramps are very tasty, you shouldn’t be too disappointed if they are not sold where you live: just mix some minced shallots and garlic, and the result will be close.

Health benefits

Of course, people don’t pay dozens of dollars for the vitamins alone, but we should note that ramps have all the same benefits as other onions and garlic (used for millennia as folk remedies):

  • Chemical allicin, found in all types of onions, acts as an anti-inflammation agent;
  • Leeks and garlic have an anti-microbial effect (see this study)
  • Organosulfur compounds strengthen the immune system;
  • Some studies indicate that consumption of garlic and leeks may help prevent cancer thanks to the flavonoid kaempferol.

Grow some ramps yourself!

Ramps are expensive on the market, and foraging for them in the woods is not a pastime for everyone. Luckily, they can be grown in the garden (and even in a container, if you get the right soil). You can find seeds of Allium tricoccum online (you may also want to try planting Allium ursinum, or ramsons – a European variety that tastes very similar).

Choose a spot under a deciduous tree protected from direct sun. Ramp seeds should be planted in early fall; bear in mind that they need cold to sprout, and even then they may not germinate in the first year. Once they do, it will take two or three years for your ramp patch to get established and spread – don’t harvest them while they are too young! When you finally get a good harvest, don’t pull out the bulbs – cut the leaves off with a sharp knife, leaving the root in the ground. Ramps can be a great addition to a garden collection of rare edibles, such as wild arugula, salad mustard, and sorrel.

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