Wild Leeks: An Endangered Delicacy

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×
A patch of wild leeks.
A patch of wild leeks.

Scroll down to read my April 15, 2011 Peterborough This Week Column for menu ideas and a recipe for Fiddlehead Quiche with Ramps. But first, let me put on my stern and serious face.

This morning, while strolling through a favourite bit of local forest with Cedar the Dog, I stopped to admire a patch of wild leeks. I rubbed a delicate new leaf between my fingers and then took in the fresh electric scent of one of Spring’s first culinary delights.

Cedar took a good strong whiff as well.

I’ve got to tell you, we were both more than a bit excited.

That sense of excitement was short-lived, however, as I came across the next patch…  Which had a good 10 foot chunk of wild leek clearcut running though the middle of it.

I’ve been frequenting this wild leek habitat for about 3 years now. And while I have seen evidence of wild leek harvesting, it has always looked mostly sustainable. This was the first mass-pulling that I had seen.

And it confirmed a fear of mine. That, like so many wild leek patches across Canada and the United States, it was in danger of being over-harvested. It was in danger of being destroyed.

This is a plant, after all, that has been given “special concern” status in several U.S. states, is labled “threatened” in Nova Scotia, and “endangered” in Quebec. Harvesting is banned in Quebec and parts of the United States.

While patches of wild leek may seem healthy and sustainable, it is important to note a few scary facts:

Seeds take 6 to 18 months to germinate, and the plants take 5 to 7 years to produce seeds.  This means that what you harvest won’t be growing back anytime soon.  And remember, chances are very high that you aren’t the only one picking from that particular patch.  So, while people tend to use a less than 5% per patch per year sustainability quota, it is very likely that any given patch is going to hit that number several times over.  The cumulative effect of harvesting over the span of years is exponential.

The answer, of course, is to be picky about picking.  A study completed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee suggested that sustainable wild leek harvesting consisted of less than 10 percent of a patch once every 10 years.  It is common for professional foragers to wait five years before returning to a patch to pick.  That’s how careful they are.  And that is how careful you should be.

Some First Nations traditions call for a careful cutting of the plant — removing the leaves, but leaving the bulb behind as a means of ensuring growth in following years. This is definitely a good idea — particularly if you are using the leeks for pestos, soups, or sauces where the bulb isn’t as much of a factor.

In short, when it comes to any wild edibles — particularly wild leeks — take only what you need and err on the side of caution.  If there is evidence of harvesting, leave the area alone.  Don’t advertise where you found the plants — particularly on social media sites where you cannot be certain of the number of people that will take advantage of this information.  And remember, it’s a lot more difficult to get a plant off of an endangered list than on it. Population decline is funny like that.

As for any entrepreneurs out there looking to start into wild edible sales, it is important to research who is already picking and selling.  And then have discussions with these local providers regarding issues of sustainability.  Chances are very good that you aren’t the only one envisioning more green in your pocket than is likely available in the early spring ground.  If there are already several longstanding sellers in your area, it is likely that, between them and the personal harvesters, your forests are probably not in a position to be providing you with a sustainable income source.  While it may seem like a good idea for you, it is probably a bad idea for natural wild leek preservation.

From my Peterborough This Week column, April 15, 2011.

Two days ago, I had a lovely interview with Marcy Adzich, a local food forager and owner of Fox Hollow Wild Edibles. We were discussing some of the early spring bounty that exists for people interested in foraging their own foods. While there is not a huge amount of variety this early in the season, there are a few major finds for local foodies – notably: wild leeks (ramps), fiddleheads, and morel mushrooms. What early spring lacks in diversity, it more than makes up for in incredible taste.

During the interview, I was lamenting the fact that I didn’t have my “own” patch of ramps. Sure, Krista and I have found a few minor clumps of these delicacies in the past, but nothing, really, that we could harvest.

A day later, our luck changed.

During a lovely afternoon hike, Krista and I rounded a corner of trail overlooking a forested valley and, much to our amazement, came across a patch of wild leeks that was easily 20 feet wide.

Looking down the hill, we saw another.

Then another.

And then many, many more.

We had hit the foraging jackpot.

And I immediately started planning some delicious menus.

Now, before I get ahead of myself and start offering recipes for these wild leeks, I should explain what they are and offer some important notes on harvesting them. Wild leeks are an early spring vegetable in the same family (Allium) as cultivated leeks, onions, and garlic. The have a huge range – growing throughout the eastern half of North America, from as far south as Georgia up to Northern Ontario and Quebec.

They are identifiable by their broad, smooth, light green leaves, often with deep purple markings on the lower stems, and a green onion-like stalk and bulb. Both the white lower leaf stalks and the broad green leaves are edible. Ramps grow in groups strongly rooted just beneath the surface of the soil.

They are also, it should be noted, absolutely delicious.

Unfortunately, they are also becoming endangered.

The problem is that they have become quite popular. And they take a long time to grow.

“They can take up to 15 years to reach maturity,” explains Adzich. “Which means that even selective harvesting can take its toll. In fact, there are bans on picking them in Quebec. And major conservation issues here in Ontario.”

Much of the problem comes from professional pickers who pick indiscriminately and sell in bulk. But even hobbyists are starting to have an impact.

Adzich understands that, if she wants to continue to be able to both sell and enjoy foraged foods such as ramps and fiddleheads, it is important to both preach and practice sustainable harvesting.

“If you find a clump of ramps, take one or two,” she advises. “Leave the rest. And never, ever pick a patch bare.”

Similarly, when picking fiddleheads, it is important to pick sparingly.

“If you don’t leave at least 3 per plant, it will die. Again, pick a few. Use them as a treat.”

I’ll be touching base with Adzich throughout the spring and summer to find out what else is in season in the wild.

In the meantime, however, I should point out that she is currently selling selectively harvested ramps. You can reach her at foxhollow.edible@gmail.com

Now, a true forager never shares picking locations. I didn’t ask where her patches are, and I sure as heck am not going to tell you where I found mine. Foragers do, on the other hand, share ideas on how to prepare foraged foods. Adzich gave me a lovely recipe that I will share at the bottom of this post.

As well, I have plenty of plans for my harvested ramps. One menu that I came up with last night looks a little like this:

• Arugula with a wild leek/goat cheese dressing
• Spring lamb with a wild leek and morel gravy
• Roasted winter heritage potatoes with new chives
• Storage apple and new rhubarb crumble with Kawartha Dairy ice cream and this year’s new maple syrup. *

This season, we’ll also be doing a wild leek/potato soup, fresh pasta with wild leeks and goat cheese, and a frittata.

Plenty of ideas.

Top of the list, though, is this Quiche recipe from Fox Hollow. I’ll be making it tonight.

Fiddlehead Quiche with Ramps

4 ramps, chopped ( bulbs and greens)

1 cup fiddlehead ferns,well rinsed and trimmed

1 cup milk

2 egg whites plus 1 whole egg (or two eggs)

3/4 cup goat cheese, crumbled

3 tbsp Gruyere cheese, finely grated

2 tsp grated lemon zest, optional

1/2 tsp salt

Freshly ground pepper, sprinkle of thyme to taste

Preheat oven to 350F. Using a refrigerated pie crust or your favorite crust recipe, tuck a rolled-out round of crust into a 9? tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing it back against the sides. Cover with foil and weight with pie chains or beans, and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the weights and foil, and use a pastry brush to brush with a bit of egg white; return to the oven for 5 minutes more, until just set. While hot, sprinkle the Gruyere evenly over the bottom of the crust and set aside.

While the crust bakes, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Clean and trim the fiddleheads if necessary, then boil them until just tender, about 8-10 minutes. Drain, shock in cold water, and set aside. Meanwhile, melt some bacon fat in a skillet; add the chopped ramps and saute, first the bulbs, then the greens, until tender and wilted, adding the blanched fiddleheads in the last minute.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the milk (I actually used part milk and part cream), eggs, goat cheese, lemon zest if using (I intended to, but forgot, and we didn’t miss it), salt and pepper. Stir in the sautéed vegetables. Pour the filling carefully into the prepared crust, and bake until golden brown, approx. 20 minutes. Let the quiche stand for 10 minutes before serving.

*Arugula is available from Tall Tree Farms at Market. Lands End Farm should have some spring lamb. Fox Hollow Edibles will have ramps and perhaps morels. There are no shortage of sellers of apples and potatoes from last year. And Staples Maple Syrup have begun selling this year’s batch.