Ramp It Up in Whitetop, VA

Wild ramps
Ramps appear in early spring in the Blue ridge Mountains.
Photo by Niall Kearney

In England, ramps are known as ramson; in France, they are ail sauvage. Native Americans in the Great Lakes area called the plants Chicagou, for which the city of Chicago is named. Elsewhere in the world, they are known as wild leeks, wild garlic, and spring onions. In the Blue Ridge Mountains and throughout Appalachia, the plants with the pungent taste and odor are called ramps.

For early mountain settlers, the plants were a welcome first sign of spring. Mountain folk who had spent most of the winter in one-and-two-room cabins eating dried and canned food and a few root vegetables couldn’t wait to dig up some fresh spring ramps for soups and stews. They can be found abundantly in the wild and cultivated in vegetable gardens. They can be eaten cooked or raw.

Ramps Are Good For What Ails Ya

The curative effects of ramps are legendary. They were used in tonics and baths and were said to throw off many winter ailments. The mountain folk may have been onto something: the selenium and sulfur-rich ramp is the subject of intense study in cancer treatment and prevention.

Ramps on a plate
Wild ramps are a welcome dietary addition after a long winter.
Photo Laval University collection

A Ramp Festival to Remember

The tradition of spring ramp eating is carried on throughout Appalachia. The most popular ramp festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains is held the third weekend in May in Whitetop in Grayson County in Southwestern Virginia. The Mount Rogers VFD sponsors the festival, featuring bluegrass music and a barbequed chicken feast with fried potatoes and green beans.

The festival’s ramp eating contest is the featured event. Contestants compete to see who can eat the most ramps (and keep them down) in three minutes.

A Tasty Ramp Pesto Recipe

Picking ramps is a great way to connect with nature and enjoy some fresh, local produce. If you’re lucky enough to find a patch of ramps, I recommend harvesting some to make a simple yet delicious ramp pesto. Here’s the recipe:

Ramp Pesto: Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients:

2 bunches ramps (about 1 pound), trimmed and cleaned

1/2 cup pine nuts

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions:

1. Wash the ramps well and trim off the roots and any damaged leaves.

2. Place the ramps, pine nuts, salt, and pepper into a food processor.

3. Pulse until the ramps are finely chopped. Scrape down the sides as needed.

4. With the processor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the pesto is well combined and has a paste-like consistency.

5. Transfer the ramp pesto to a bowl and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.

6. Use immediately or transfer the pesto to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

7. Serve the ramp pesto with crusty bread for dipping, spooned over pasta or eggs, or use as a spread in sandwiches.

The pesto freezes well, so you can make a double batch and save some for later. Just top with a thin layer of olive oil to prevent browning before freezing. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using.

Enjoy your fresh, homegrown ramp pesto – it’s a delicious reminder of spring’s arrival and the bounty yet to come from the new growing season. Get out there and forage for ramps while they’re still in season – you won’t regret making the most of this ephemeral yet deeply flavorful wild edible.

ramp pesto
A tasty ramp pesto served over baked salmon.
Image: Flikr

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