During the third week of April I can count on two rewards for enduring a long cold winter — ramps for the dinner table and a promise of morels.
Ramps are wild leeks, pungently aromatic members of the lily family. They form dense stands in rich damp soil beneath a canopy of beech, maple, poplar, oak, or hickory trees. If you find trillium and bluebells, you’re in ramp habitat. My best beds are along a tiny stream.
Ramps grow rapidly for only a few weeks in the spring. Bright sunlight, thanks to naked trees above, and spring rains trigger their growth.
Their green elongate leaves are striking on a forest floor that is still drably colored. In June, the leaves die back, and the plants flower. That’s when you can collect seeds.
But it is the taste of ramps for which they are best known. Some people love ‘em. Others say ramp odor lingers on the breath and even taints body odor for days.
My introduction to ramps, (allium tricoccum) came shortly after my wife and I moved to West Virginia.
Neighbors encouraged us to, “dig up some ramps and fry ‘em with venison.”
We followed our new friends’ advice. Fortunately ramps are easy to recognize. Clumps of lush green leaves, each one broad, flat and spear-shaped, covered the ground. And a few inches beneath the surface, we found clusters of swollen white aromatic bulbs.
We dug up a few handfuls, rinsed them in the stream, and took them home. There we boiled them for a few minutes to tone down the flavor and then sautéed them with venison tenderloins. And if the timing is right, we throw a few morels in the skillet.
Perhaps because we pre-boil the ramps, we don’t find their taste over-powering. In fact, we’ve discovered that ramps can add a pleasantly wild flavor to soups, chili, spaghetti sauce and stews.
Though I haven’t found any morels yet this spring, I expect them to pop in a week or so. Fortunately, they are among the easiest mushrooms to identify.
A fleshy, pitted, triangular head sits atop a rubbery stalk. Some describe the head as looking like a sponge or a pine cone. I think the pits and convolutions look more like a brain.
In any case, it’s the distinct appearance of the head that makes morels easy to recognize. Morels range from tan to dark brown in color and measure two to four or five inches tall. Both the head and stalk are hollow.
The best part of a morel hunt comes when the mesh collecting bag is full. We cradle and smell handfuls of our cool moist prizes. The odor is captivating — rich and earthy — reminiscent of humus from the forest floor.
And where do you find morels? Here, I’m afraid, you’re on your own, unless you have a generous morel-hunting friend, though morel hunters tend to be as protective of their best spots as hunters and anglers are of theirs.
I will tell you that we usually find morels under or near dead apple and elm trees. And field guides list old orchards, recently burned fields and beech-maple and oak woodlands as morel habitat.
If you’re lucky enough to find a few morels, keep these tips in mind. Slice lengthwise and remove any insects or slugs before cooking. Cook before eating. (Sauteing works well.) Don’t eat large quantities on successive days. And don’t drink alcohol when eating morels.
When raw or combined with alcohol, even a few morels can be toxic.
Finally, before you plan a mushroom hunt, heed a few words of warning. Many mushrooms are poisonous, and some are deadly. Beginners might confuse poisonous false morels, for example, with true morels.
This is not something to learn by trial and error.
Study field guides, or better yet, take a short course on mushroom identification at a local nature center or community college.
Though longer days, the return of migratory birds, and choruses of spring peepers are certain signs of spring, connoisseurs of wild foods rank stinky ramps and earthy morels among nature’s truest harbingers of spring.