Our friend Bob Sutherland (who you’ll remember helps us plant our garden seedlings) sent us a email a while back asking if we’d like to join some friends of his on their annual wild leek hunt.
Yes! We replied. Yes yes yes! Having lived in New York city for so many years, we’re well aware of the mysterious awe and gustatory celebration of the very short season of the Allium tricoccum. Chefs around the city prepare special dishes that stay on menus for only a week or two during their availability. In New York city, they’re mainly referred to as “ramps,” but they’re also known around America and Europe as “wild leeks,” “spring onions,” or “ramsons.”
Okay, Bob responded, but there’s one condition – you can’t reveal their location to anyone.
We’re always up for espionage of any sort. Especially if it ends with a meal. And especially if it ends with a meal including ramps.
Though tiny in size, ramps have a powerful flavor – almost a cross between an onion and garlic. But although they have an outsized flavor, they’re still somewhat milder than onions or garlic. They don’t have the stinging bite of their larger, domesticated cousins.
Bob recently emailed again to let us know that the ramps had appeared, and we’d have one shot at harvesting some for ourselves. So we hopped in the truck to drive out to meet Bob at the property of his friends – Kim and Jeff. (No last names to protect the innocent…leeks.) We were instructed to bring a spade and a basket for carrying our haul. We half-expected to be blindfolded and led into the woods, but apparently we looked trustworthy enough.
On our walk through the woods, Jeff and Kim pointed out their favorite spots to find mushrooms. They’ve collected over 15 different varieties over the years, and have found many dozens more. They’re justifiably cautious about eating any of them until they’ve certified their species beyond a doubt. Wild leeks are an indicator plant for morel mushrooms, alerting a forager to locations where they might find morels a few months hence.
A short distance into the woods Kim pointed out several “Blue Cohosh” sprouts just peeking out from spring earth. Blue Cohosh is related to Black Cohosh, which is used for several holisitic health remedies.
Soon we came upon islands of green bursting out atop of last autumn’s leaves. The forest floor all around was still grey and brown except for these few patches – some of which measured almost fifty feet square.
Start digging, Kim instructed. She further advised that we dig only one or two shovelfuls from each patch, to allow them to regenerate for the next year.
As we dug, she explained that while the bulbs leaves die back after only a week or so, the flower stalk appears several months later – all by itself. She found a dried flower with a few seeds from the previous year to show us.
We each pulled and separated a basketful to bring home with us.
All around us the forest filled with a heady sweet onion scent. Though fairly mild tasting, the Allium tricoccum has a potent smell….just ask anyone riding the train back into the city with us later that evening.