"We remember all the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic that we wanted." - Numbers: 11:5
I mention this passage because, dating back to ancient Egypt, it is the oldest reference to leeks that I am aware of.
Every year, around this time, I look forward to going off into the woods and digging up a few wild leeks. I first harvested them many years ago, when I was living in West Virginia. West Virginians have come to honor and celebrate this pungent little woodland delicacy as the first of the spring crops and the forerunner to all of the wild and garden fruits, vegetables and herbs still to come.
Throughout Appalachia, wild leeks are called ramps, a name that most likely has its roots in England, where a similar plant, known as ramson, from the Elizabethan "hramsa," can be found growing wild in fens and river woods. Ramson is a type of wild garlic that is native to much of Europe. It is known by many names in as many countries: ail des ours in France, wilder knoblauch in Germany, daslook in the Netherlands.
In Virginia, West Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, mountain folk have, for generations, celebrated the passing of winter and the coming of spring with ramp festivals where, among other things, participants eagerly head off into the woods on foraging expeditions called ramp romps.
Wild leeks, Allium tricoccum, are indigenous to much of eastern North America. They range from southern Canada to Georgia and from the Atlantic coast as far west as Iowa and Minnesota. They belong to the same genus as onions, chives and garlic. That genus, Allium, comprises, by some estimates, 500 species worldwide.
Preferring the moist, rich soil and filtered sunlight provided by dense stands of maple, beech, elm and other mixed deciduous trees, wild leeks are often found where white trilliums, a related wildflower, also grow. Early in the spring, before bud break, they appear amidst the debris on the forest floor. When the conditions are right, wild leeks will appear in colonies of hundreds or even thousands, each bulb sending up two or three broad, smooth, lily-of-the-valley-like leaves, which will grow to be 2 or so inches wide and 6 to 10 inches long. They may appear to be some sort of woodland orchid, but are easily identified by a red stem and by their distinctive onion / garlic smell.
As the trees start to leaf out and shade the ground, the leaves of the wild leeks start to wither, and eventually they fall away. What remains are single buds on solitary stalks. Then, in late spring and early summer, the buds open to become clusters of beautiful white blossoms. Each flower, in turn, produces a seed capsule, allowing the wild leeks to reproduce by both bulb offsets and seeds.
Although I would never take a bite out of an onion, I find wild leeks to be remarkably tasty when fresh picked and eaten raw. If they didn't make you smell like well leeks, I'd eat them by the handful. Wild edible plants expert, the late Euell Gibbons, considered them to be "the sweetest and the best of the wild onions."
They add fantastic flavor to soups, casseroles, potatoes, rice, eggs, salads; just about anything. Try using them in place of onions in almost any recipe. And the bulbs are so extremely versatile that they can be dried, blanched and frozen, pickled or canned.
The Chippewa Indians used wild leeks in treating coughs and colds, and for cleansing the blood. They shared this knowledge with the early white settlers. Modern science links Alliums, such as leeks, to increased production of high-density lipoproteins, which are believed to reduce blood serum levels of cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.
The Menominee Indians called them skunk plants (pikwute sikakushia) and spoke of an area along the south shore of Lake Michigan where wild leeks could be found in abundance. They called the area skunk place (shikako). It would eventually come to be called Chicago.
West Virginia potato and ramp (wild leek) soup
Serves 4 to 6
4 to 6 slices bacon
4 cups chopped wild leeks
4 to 5 cups potatoes (peeled and diced)
3 Tablespoons flour
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
Fry the bacon until crispy and set aside.
Add the leeks and potatoes to the skillet and fry on medium-low heat until the leeks are tender.
Sprinkle with flour and stir until the flour is absorbed.
Stir in the chicken broth and simmer until the potatoes are tender.
Stir in the cream and heat thoroughly.
Add salt and pepper to taste.