“I have wild garlic in my back yard. What do I do with it?”
“Where can I find ramps in Quebec?”
“How do I pick them?”
“Am I breaking the law?”
“Wow, you have ramps! Can we have some?”
So many ramp inquiries. Let me attack a few.
If you have ramps (ail des bois) in your backyard, I suggest you just cut off some of the leaves. You can chop them up and throw them into any salad, sandwich or dish. I have been using it everywhere in the past weeks: in shrimp or lobster salad, in green salad, on tomato-bocconcini salad, on pizza, in a cheese sandwich, in mashed potatoes or risotto, on warm buttered fiddleheads, in any soup or sauce..
If you want the bulbs, you just dig in with your fingers and feel around, pull gently and slice the bulb at the base. You want to leave the root strings in tact, if you want them to come back. The bulb is good used in the same ways as regular garlic, but it is more delicate, so it doesn't need to be cooked as much or even at all, if you like the fresh, pungent flavour. I know many people who love to eat them whole in their natural glory; they are popular pickled too. While the leaves are to be used as a fresh herb, I think the bulb is best sliced (as opposed to chopped) and just kissed by heat, thrown into the pan at the end, or onto a pasta or hot dish. If overcooked, it loses all its personality.
We mostly just use the leaves though, for several reasons. For one, it is their floral, mild (for garlic) flavour we prefer. And since it is illegal to exploit ramps commercially, we only use them at home, for family and friends. Actually, in Quebec, you aren't allowed to be caught with more than 50 bulbs. Harvesting ramps is banned in Quebec because the plant was disappearing from over-picking. Ramps are a long loved tradition in rural Quebec, and people were eating them to extinction. Since the demand was there, overzealous and ambitious pickers were pulling up the roots, not only for personal use, but to sell. Since it is a plant that is slow to grow and reproduce, it became threatened. If only it was harvested correctly, all would be fine, but unfortunately, there are always a few bad apples to spoil the fun. Meanwhile, in Ontario, New England and everywhere else, they are still regularly ripped out by the roots and sold at markets.
The last reason why François shaves off all the leaves in his patches on our property is to safeguard them from ramp loving thieves! Without the leaves, no one can know the precious plants are there. Plus we are assured of a bountiful return every year. Sure, we will snag a few bulbs over the course of the season, but always ever so carefully.
We need to make some ramp butter after all (usually coupled with the bite of crinkleroot that so happens to grow in unison with ramps) to pull out when a lobster comes our way, or for the odd grilled cheese sandwich. We will put up a batch for François’ family too, and that’s it. For us, ramps are one of the supremely seasonal things that we celebrate for a few weeks and then leave be.
At a catering event last week for a friend, because it is the height of spring, we used them liberally everywhere, and it was a hit. All guests were instructed to munch on a leaf upon entry to break the ice – everyone that night would smell like garlic and that was it. It would surface in every other dish amidst the 8 course meal, and they were drinking Champagne, fine Burgundy, Amarone, Sauterne etc. - no matter. It provided the main joke (and magic) of the evening.