chefs forage for ramps

Chef Drew Belline led the expedition to pick ramps in the Cohutta Wilderness in the North Georgia mountains. They hit the mother lode, a hillside with thousands of the plants. (Photos: Tom Oder)

A new generation of chefs is taking the farm-to-table trend in local sourcing and sustainability to a new level of culinary inspiration. Call them America’s foraging chefs. They are collecting locally available plants in environmentally responsible ways and serving them in sync with the seasons in a style that belies the plants’ often-unassuming appearance and origins.

Six of these chefs, a farmer and a few friends threaded their way through Atlanta’s rush-hour traffic early one morning in late April and headed for the mountains of North Georgia. Their destination was a mountainside deep in the Cohutta Wilderness that Drew Belline, chef and co-owner of the Italian-inspired restaurant 246 in Decatur and the expedition leader, had foraged before. If his timing was right, he vowed the site would be covered with ramps (Allium tricoccum).

Ramps are variably known as spring onions, wild leeks, wood leeks and wild garlic. They are the first green vegetable to emerge in the spring in much of North America and are harvested at a time when many farmers are still putting in their crops.

basket of ramps

The little plants, which only grow about a foot tall, have an underground bulb, a stalk and a pair of bright green leaves. Timing is everything with ramps, Belline said. There is a short window of only a few weeks when they are at an optimum size and flavor for harvesting, he explained. Arrive too early, and the ramps are too small. Wait too late, and the leaves turn yellow and the taste becomes bitter.

Harvested at the right time, though, ramps have a much-sought-after pungent flavor that ranges from a taste like onions for some to garlicky for others. For all palates, however, the appeal that sets them apart from their cultivated cousins — leeks, scallions or chives — is the earthy overtone of the rich humus of the leaf-littered forest floor from which they are collected.

Ramps are especially popular in Appalachian communities along the East Coast. In Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and even into Canada, mountain folk hold festivals to celebrate this springtime treat. There’s even a National Ramp Association.

It was this popularity that was on the mind of Belline as he led the chef caravan to the little town of Blue Ridge and then far into the North Georgia mountains. Belline was hoping the locals hadn’t beaten him to the site. He was also hoping he had timed the trip correctly. He decided to go later this year than last because he thought the damp, cool spring the Southeast has experienced this year would delay the ramps’ emergence and growth.

Joining Belline and sharing his hopes were five of Atlanta’s top chefs: Holly Chute, the executive chef at the Georgia Governor’s Mansion; Todd Mussman, chef and co-owner of Atlanta’s Local Three and Muss and Turners in suburban Smyrna; Colin Miles, butcher and charcuterist at Leon's Full Service, a gastropub a few doors down from 246; Andrew Isabella, Belline’s chef de cuisine; and Hector Santiago, chef at the recently closed Pura Vida, which offered Latin American food with a Peruvian flair.

chefs forage for ramps

Loaded down with ramps, farmer Jonathan Szecsey (from left) and chefs Hector Santiago and Andrew Isabella approach the trailhead after a nearly mile-long, uphill climb.

After twisting, winding and grinding their way along a paved road that became a gravel road that gave way to dirt, the chefs piled into the bed of Belline’s four-wheel drive truck. Family cars are not designed for what lay ahead — a final jolting ascent up a steep and deeply rutted Forest-Service-type dirt road to a trailhead.

Taking off single file down the narrow trail that at some points looked more like a wash littered with loose rocks than a path, the chefs made their way almost a mile into the forest. Finally the trail came to an opening where the sun, filtering through the still-forming spring tree canopy, lit up the emerald-green leaves of the ramps like a beacon. It was the mother lode. Thousands of ramps, more than it was possible to count, hugged the steep slope of the forest floor.

The chefs fanned out and silently went to work with a variety of tools that in some cases looked more like Medieval weapons than implements for digging vegetables. Prying the prized ramps from the loose earth, they packed them into backpacks, woven baskets and tote bags. By the time they were finished, they had made such a tiny dent in the dense growth of ramps that it wasn’t even apparent they had been there.

chef forages for rampsOnce back in Atlanta, this first spring vegetable, which could easily have gone unnoticed by the casual hiker, has turned up on plates from the Governor’s Mansion to fine restaurants to gastropubs. They’ve been served in a variety of ways, including in a sauté with chicken, mushrooms and white wine over brown basmati rice and in a sauté with lemon, wine and pasta. They have been made into a jelly that will be served with sheep or goat cheese and some have been turned in a ramp kimchee that, when it finishes fermenting, will be served with grilled meats to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.

Foraging is not for chefs only. It’s also a great way for home gardeners and cooks to combine a love of nature, gardening and cooking. But, before setting out on a foraging expedition, there are some basic guidelines to be aware of. Here are some "do's" and "don'ts" about foraging to help ensure a safe experience when visiting wild areas near your home and when serving your harvests to friends or family.

Foraging do's

  • Know what is edible and what is not. Never guess about whether a plant is poisonous. When foraging, consider taking two bags, a "sure" bag for the plants you know are safe and an “unsure” bag for those you aren’t sure about.
  • Find a mentor. Find an experienced forager you can trust to give you tips about what, when and where to forage and who can identify plants in your “unsure” bag.
  • Learn what grows where. If you are looking for ramps in Georgia, don’t search for them along a coastal floodplain. In the South, ramps are mountain plants.
  • Learn about the non-edible plants that grow with edible plants. These are called companion plants. A forager looking for morel mushrooms along the Missouri River, for instance, would want to be extra vigilant if he or she came upon Jack-in-the-pulpits, May-apples, phlox or ferns. These plants and morels prefer a similar combination of soil, slope, moisture and sunlight and often colonize the same sites.
  • Learn about look-a-likes. Lily-of-the-valley is similar in appearance to ramps. One way to tell the difference is the fragrance of the plants. Ramps have a pungent odor of garlic. Lily-of-the-valley has no odor.
  • ramps plant in wildKnow your Latin. Because common names can vary widely and some wild edible plants share the same common names as poisonous plants, it’s a good idea to know the Latin name of the plants you are foraging. This is not as intimidating as it may sound. Chances are you are foraging for only a few specific plants. It won’t de difficult to learn their Latin, or botanical, names. These are reliable names that will not change except for those occasions when taxonomists reclassify plants.
  • Consider growing wild edible plants at home. Wild plant populations are under threat from diminished habitat and over collecting. If your garden conditions match the habitat needs of wild edibles you like, try growing them in your home garden.
  • Get permission to forage. Foraging on private land without permission can result in unwanted confrontations and even legal problems. Also, asking for permission to forage is a matter of courtesy.
  • Let friends or family know you are foraging. Accidents can happen. If you are going to be in a remote area, it’s a good idea to let someone know where that area is and when you expect to return.
  • Be aware of hunting seasons. Take the time to find out if the area you plan to forage is open to hunting. In any case, consider wearing a reflecting vest.
  • Use all of your senses. Don't limit yourself to visual ID alone. Lots of wild edible plants have look-a-likes. Learn how to differentiate similar plants by smell, feel, texture, etc. 
  • Learn to follow wild edible plants through all seasons. Some plants, like pokeweed, emerge in the spring but are not identifiable until warm months when they are past their point of use. If you note where pokeweed is in the summer, you’ll know where to find it next spring.
  • Learn which parts of a wild edible plant are safe to use. Some plants are only edible at certain times of the year. For example, stinging nettle shouldn't be used after it goes to seed.
Foraging don'ts
  • Take too much. Even if the population of plants you are harvesting seems abundant, be mindful that you likely will not be the only person to forage there. Be realistic about what you can use and never take more than that.
  • Harvest protected plants. For one thing, depending on the plant, it may be illegal. For another, a plant that may appear plentiful in one location may be rare throughout its range. 
  • Collect the entire plant if you only need its leaves. If you want sassafras leaves to make a filé powder, there’s no reason to dig up a young tree.
  • Harvest in toxic areas. Areas along busy roads are susceptible to residue from toxic car exhausts and from pesticides sprayed by road crews. If you are going to forage along a stream, know the water source. Avoid collecting plants located near streams that may be contaminated by chemicals and metals from the discharge of nearby manufacturing facilities.
  • Forage plants that don’t appear to be healthy. Plants can be afflicted by disease, fungi, pests or pollution. Harvesting only healthy plants minimizes the risk of illness and also means you're getting more nutritious food.
What are your foraging experiences and what “do's” and “don’ts” about foraging would you add to our list?

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Inset photo: Chef Todd Mussman carries a bag of ramps on the trail back to the truck.