This spring was all about the early harbingers. The abnormally warm weather, the insects, and the March 20 cherry blossoms all came early to remind us the world was getting warmer, especially the Northeast. One welcome early arrival, at least for foodies, were ramps, which came two to three weeks early this year. Now at the height of the season there are absolutely tons of these beloved greens, and some people couldn't be happier.
"I had ramps the first day of spring," Aldea chef George Mendes told The Atlantic Wire (that's his pig ear and ramp salad, at left). Normally ramps—a slightly sweet, garlicky green that's member of the leek family—start hitting the markets in early to mid April, but this year, they started appearing in late March. "Ramps are all over the kitchen, all over the menu," said Dan Barber, whose Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns helped start the trend of seasonal, localized dining. "We don’t have them in desserts but we’re making a ramp and mushroom burger, we grill a ton of ramps that go into a ton of dishes all over the menu. We’re making a ramp marmalade for toast, we make a ramp vinaigrette, we pickle the ramps."
One reason for all this ramp fanfare is simply because they're the first green thing that comes out of the ground after winter. But lately they've attained something of a cult status among diners and chefs alike, Eater editor Greg Morabito said. "Chefs are pretty competitive people and especially right now with social media, it’s almost like bragging rights to be able to say I have the first morels or the first ramps of the season. We certainly perpetuate that on Eater."
Morabito said ramps' popularity started approaching its zenith about three years ago, but earlier this week Smithsonian's Peter Smith suggested it's been much longer in coming, pointing out Martha Stewart's been publishing recipes using them since the 1990s. And last year The New York Times' Inrani Sen noted that "In the South, ramp festivals have been held for generations."
Either way, ramps embody a lot of what modern dining has come to value: They're foraged, not farmed, and you have to know where to look for them in the woods, at the greenmarkets, and at restaurants. Cooking with them is all about using local produce and being in the know, and that kind of fast-moving information lends itself to sharing on Twitter and hyping on blogs like Eater.
Finding ramps at greenmarkets can take on a competitive winner-take-all aspect since the greens come in limited supply. Their season is short -- about four to eight weeks over the early spring -- and while they're a hearty plant, they're fickle about growing in just the right amount of shade. Plus, they have a big root system that stays in the ground all year, all of which combine to make them extremely difficult to farm—and extremely desirable when found.
As competition among shoppers heats up in the early weeks of ramp season, New York's greenmarket vendors usually limit the quantity chefs can buy. This year, that limit is looser. "The competitiveness is still there, but they’re growing a substantial amount. Various farmers in the market put a cap on how much they would give the restaurants. About 10 pounds per restaurant during the first week," Mendes said. Previous years have seen those caps last two to three weeks.
But the supply has not kept up with the demand, even in this year of plenty.
Ramps grow all over the country ("the plant proliferates in woodlands from Canada to Georgia and probably gave the city of Chicago its name; chicagoua appears to be a native Illinois name for what French explorers calledail sauvage, or 'wild garlic,' " Smithsonian's Peter Smith wrote), but they don't usually get shipped far. New York gets most of its ramps from patches in the Catskills, Mendes said. Though that's changing. "Its turned into this crazy ridiculous competition for who can have ramps first. Which means people are buying them from Virginia for the New York market long before they come up locally," Porsena chef Sara Jenkins said in an email. In late march she complained on Twitter: "Ramps are at $16.75 a pound this year, I remember when they were $7 a pound."
While this year's early warm weather has made for something of a ramp windfall, it also suggests future problems, said Frank Lowenstein, a climate scientist with the Nature Conservancy and an avid harvester of wild ramps. Since they're hearty, drought- and cold-resistant, and spend most of their year in the ground, a dry year will not hurt them, Lowenstein explained. "That’s their historical strategy: Get some leaves up and get their sunshine now." But a permanent change to weather patterns could spell disaster.
"The temperatures are warming more at night and more in the winter than they are in the summer and the daytime. So will that mean that more insects survive and you’ll see more insect damage," he asked. "Will trees move their phenology up so they open up their leaves sooner and shade the ramps too much? The forest right now is a very intricate web of interactions and competition that’s pretty well balanced. I think the shifts we’re seeing are going to change those balances, and the effects will be difficult to predict ahead of time."
The more immediate threat facing wild ramps is over-harvesting. In 2011, The Times pointed out that their sale has been outlawed in Quebec since 1995, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park banned harvesting in 2004. Lowenstein said you can harvest responsibly if you're careful: "I harvest one or two leaves from each plant, and I don’t disturb the roots. I think for wild populations, looking for signs of stress, stopping if you see signs they’ve had a lot of harvesters, and only harvesting a few leaves, are the key points." But not everybody does that. New York, The Times found, doesn't restrict ramp harvesting.
One effect of ramps' skyrocketing popularity and price is that they may become a viable farm product after all, thus relieving a lot of the strain from the wild populations. The G-N Ramp Farm in West Virginia sells seeds, bulbs, and books about ramps. They'll also mail you a pound of the fresh ones for $22.05. North Carolina State University has a specialty crops program where it's researching techniques to make ramp farming viable.
Meanwhile, in New York, the unseasonably warm weather may also turn out to be something of a break for ramps. "People are asking for asparagus and tomatoes right now," Barber said. "It doesn’t really fit with the ecological cycle, it fits with the psychological cycle. They want to eat more in keeping with warm weather, whether that’s summer or spring."
Recipe: Aldea's pig ear and ramp salad
By George Mendes