Photo courtesy of Jay Marion
Imagine you’re a kid again, mining a grassy field for clover. Instead, you find a wild onion and pull. The pungent odor sticks to your hands, stinging your tongue as you bite. Now take that memory and add garlic — that’s the taste of ramps.
Once a simple means of getting greens in early spring, ramps are now a wild delicacy found in patches from Georgia to Canada. In Richmond, ramps pop up on menus in April. Because they’re undomesticated, the supply is unreliable and limited; River City restaurants and chefs lean on two people for the vegetable: Digger Jay and chef Jimmy Sneed.
Since the 1990s, Sneed has relied on forager Bill Kincaid and, come late March, obtains ramps for Mamma ’Zu, Heritage, Fresca on Addison, Acacia mid-town and Farm to Family.
“They have the best flavor ... like scallions with a big garlicky, earthy punch,” Acacia chef Dale Reitzer says of Kincaid’s ramps. When they’re in season, Acacia goes through 30 pounds per week.
Forager Jay Marion (left), owner of Digger Jay’s Seasonal Wild Edibles, has hunted ramps for 40 years. He says increasing popularity makes ramps harder to find, but he doesn’t sweat
“My grandfather took me to several places when I was a kid that he said were full of ramps. We found none,” Marion says. “Twenty years later, I went back to those same spots and there were tons of them.”
You can save yourself a trip to the woods and find Digger Jay’s ramps here in town, at Little House Green Grocery. On May 5, The Urban Tavern will hold a ramps dinner with Devils Backbone Brewing Co. Or you can dig into chef Travis Milton's simple Appalachian preparation at Comfort: “The creamy potatoes, sharp garlic-onion flavor of the ramps and smoky Benton’s bacon make for a perfect bite.”
Dishes to Try
- Acacia mid-town’s grilled fish and ramps; cucumber ramp kimchi with pork belly
- Heritage’s ramp-topped cavatelli with bacon, ramp bulbs, ricotta, pea shoots and preserved Meyer lemon
- Fresca on Addison’s fresh ramp sandwich; ramp pesto
- Comfort’s potatoes, ramps and Benton’s bacon
- Lemaire’s salmon with grilled ramps, fiddlehead ferns, morel mushrooms and country-ham potato cake