Whether by guests or journalists, the question I am most frequently asked is, “How did you become interested in foraging?” The answer has evolved over the years since Heirloom has been open and I often repeat a standard answer at this point, but the essence of it remains the same. When I was growing up I used to go fishing with my grandfather, Pa Bruce, almost every summer. More often than not, we would give up fishing sometime in the afternoon for the coolness of the deep woods and foraging. His favorite ingredient to forage was always ginseng, most likely due to its rarity and therefore high price, but also because of the gorgeous places the search took us.
Along the way, he would point out bracken ferns, saw briar tips, and sassafras trees, along with the cornucopia of other wild edibles North Carolina’s forest and fields provide, and from there the obsession started.
Pa Bruce always said that ginseng was best foraged on north facing slopes in cool deep hollers. As I grew older, no matter how many hollers we slipped down in to, the noticeable red berries became harder and harder to find. The likely cause? Demand for an already rare plant had forced it to the brink of extinction. Foragers would disregard the necessary practices of taking only what nature would allow, leaving a few plants behind for the next year, and replanting the berries of the plants they were able to harvest. What was once only a memory of my youth is now a cautionary tale of another wild edible whose demand has outpaced its supply. Fortunately with ramps, or allium tricoccum by their Latin name, we are still relatively early to the party and a few minor changes can drastically alter the future of this amazing allium.
Ramps are by far and away one of my favorite ingredients of the year, and certainly one of my favorite to forage. I can remember stories of my dad cooking up ramps for dinner that were foraged fresh that afternoon in his college kitchen at Haywood Tech, and of my grandmother and mother, both school teachers, reminiscing when students were sent home for the scent of ramps leaching out of their pores. I am like a moth to a flame when it comes to any ingredient with that power. We even have a festival to celebrate them in Waynesville, NC, every April. The classical preparation for ramps, sautéed with livermush, is one of my favorite nostalgic flavors. Whether they are pickled, sautéed, or made in to a pesto or oil, they are truly one of the first great flavors of Spring in NC.
That’s why this year’s decision to be truly sustainable in our ramp foraging was a difficult one. I knew it would mean less ramps coming in to the kitchen at Heirloom, but the old saying of “If you love something, let it go” kept echoing in my head. I knew that if I wanted to have ramps on my children’s and their children’s menu, then something had to be done. So we chose to only work with foragers we knew we could trust, including my mom’s college roommate who has a massive ramp crop on her mountain property, Kim Barnhardt, as well as my parents who have several spots that they have foraged over the years. These sources, in addition to my own personal foraging, ensured that all of this year’s ramps at Heirloom would be truly sustainable. As we approach the end of the season, of course we have not processed nearly the quantity we did the previous two years, but I can personally say I feel much better about the 4 quarts of ramp pickles, 2 quarts of ramp oil, 2 quarts of ramp pesto, and 1 cup of ramp powder I have tucked away in the Heirloom larder.
A simple search of #ramps on Instagram will yield over 84,000 results, many of which are not ramps in their natural habitat. We have created a market as consumers, which see ramps being foraged across Appalachia and shipped to waiting chefs and markets all over the globe. You see chefs and home cooks happily posing with tens and hundreds of pounds of ramps waiting processing. I have seen my ramp foraging spots gradually depleted over the years from over eager foragers wanting to make a quick buck. When I saw the price of ramps at this year’s market at $14 a pound, I saw what was coming.
Sustainable ramp foraging is actually quite simple. Only forage where the ramps are in abundance and only take a percentage of what is available, ideally 30% at most. The most sustainable way to harvest ramps is by using a trowel or small sharp shovel, to gently move the soil from one side of the bulb. Then, taking care not to dislodge the bulb and roots, cut the base off of the bulb leaving it with the roots in the ground. This will ensure new ramps will grow the following season. Don’t forage the flowers or seed pods of the plant as this will seriously deplete next year’s availability. If you are buying ramps and not foraging them yourself, hold your foragers to this same standard. If we are able to create a market for sustainably foraged ramps, we can ensure their availability for generations to come.
I understand the desire for ramps, truly. I can relate to that craving for the first taste of spring after months of root vegetable and leafy green purgatory, but I also understand how the desire was created. We, as chefs, championed the ramp. We raved about its rich garlic and umami flavor, food journalists waxed eloquently about it, and eventually guests everywhere were asking for it, so it is simple to see the reasons why it is being over harvested. We did that. If it was that simple to champion the ramp however, why can’t we highlight the other wild flavors of spring? Dandelions saw briars, henbit, purple dead nettle, and even wild garlic among others, are all awaiting their turn in the spotlight. Let’s give them that. As Frank Cook, a pioneer in the world of wild food said often, “Eat something wild every day.” Happy dining, and as always, it has got to be NC!