One of my favourite Spring flavours is wild leek, also called ramps. My parents are farmers and for over 30 years have been foraging wild leeks from the same little patch down one of their farm lanes. My mama would add the bright green leaves to salads and soups and every few days one of us would make the journey back to the patch to bring another armful home. Soon the ramps would give way to trilliums and the season would shift to summer and we would wait to enjoy their flavour again the following year. My parents introduced me to foraging and how to do it correctly, without over-harvesting. This is really important especially for wild leeks as they are slow to replenish. Whether we're foraging or buying from a market, we need to make sure that we are doing so responsibly and asking others if they are doing the same. Here are some guidelines for preserving wild leeks in nature as well as my favourite way to preserve wild leeks in the kitchen so you can enjoy their flavour all year - Fermented Whole Leaf Ramps.
Preserving Wild Leeks in Nature
I love Instagram for finding other folks with similar interests to inspire my own journey. I've connected with a lot of other wild food lovers on there. Last year, I saw a photo of a fellow forager who posted a shot of himself collecting crates and crates of wild leeks with the whole bulb attached and he commented that this was just one day's worth of what he sold at a farmers market. I was shocked at the volume he had picked and because I knew that when you pull the whole bulb out, the plant can't regrow next year. Wild leeks are a perennial plant that is in the allium (onion) family. It sends its spicy leaves up early in the Spring. Later in the season when the leaves have mainly died off, it sends up a flower stem. Wild leeks reproduce in two ways - through the seeds of the flower and by splitting large bulbs into smaller ones. It takes a wild leek seed a year to germinate and then another 3-5 years before it becomes a mature plant capable of producing its own seed! For bulb reproduction, the plant must have produced a large enough bulb to split, which also takes several years. This slow reproduction is why irresponsible foraging has devastated wild leek populations in Quebec, making the plant quite rare. Even a small amount of foraging can impact wild leeks, taking them several years to recover. One study found that once over-harvested, it can take 20 years before the area recovers! This over-harvesting is also starting to happen in Eastern Ontario with local populations suffering a noticeable decrease in size. When I commented on the crates of wild leek in this forager's photo and asked whether he was making sure he wasn't over-harvesting as he was picking the plant bulb and all, he didn't reply to my comment and promptly stopped following me. Not a good sign. I don't like 'scolding' other people and I'm not suggesting you should either, but when we're supporting someone at a local market or when we decide to forage ourselves, I think we should definitely make sure we're supporting the health of our wild foods by not over-harvesting sensitive species. (Plus, there's lot of tasty invasive species that you can pick to your heart's content, like garlic mustard or Japanese knotweed! Go wild, pick it all!!)
Let's all make sure we support responsible foraging-
- To responsibly forage wild leeks, only pick from a large, well-established patch
- If you find a large patch, go back often during the season and see if there are others who are also foraging from the same spot
- Once you have found a healthy patch and are confident that there are not multiple foragers, take no more than 2%
- Pick the top of the leaf, but leave the bulb in the ground
- Choose older leaves of more established plants (often harvesters take young plants as they have a more tender flavour, but we should be picking from plants with mature bulbs as they are more likely to survive the loss of a leaf)
- Continue to monitor your patch each year and if you see a decline, stop harvesting until it fully recovers
- Offer your thanks
Preserving Wild Leeks in the Kitchen
If you're lucky enough to have a healthy patch of wild leek to pick, one of the best ways to preserve the harvest is to ferment the whole leaf. This ferment lasts for several months (we're just finishing last years now), the flavour of the leek remains, most of the nutrients remain intact, you add beneficial probiotic bacteria, and it's versatile in the kitchen (you can decide to chop or blend it later depending on what you're cooking).
Whole Leaf Leek Ferment
4-6 handfuls wild leek, gently rinsed under cool water
2-3 tsp sea salt
Place rinsed wild leek in a medium-sized bowl and sprinkle with sea salt.
Use hands to gently massage sea salt into leaves.
Allow to sit for a few moments. The salt will start to pull the water out of the leaves, creating a brine. Once the leaves are quite wet, transfer them along with the brine to a clean, wide-mouthed glass jar.
Firmly press the leaves down, removing any air bubbles. As you press, the brine should start to rise, covering the leaves.
Then place a smaller clean glass jar filled with water on top as a weight.
Cover the whole thing with a clean towel to keep out any dust and set in a corner of the kitchen out of direct light to ferment.
Check daily to ensure that brine is still covering the leaves. If needed, press down on the weight jar to help push more brine up. You want the leaves to remain under the brine the whole time it ferments, this allows beneficial bacteria to thrive and produce acids which will preserve the leeks.
After 7-10 days, taste-test a leaf. It will be less tangy than other ferments (say sauerkraut) but it will taste mildly acidic and the leaf will have softened. Once fermented to your liking, remove weight, cover with waxed paper to prevent evaporation, and seal tightly with a lid. Will keep in the fridge for several months.
If you'd like to learn how to forage, we have a workshop coming up on May 29th, from 12-3 in High Park. All proceeds will go to support the P.I.N.E Project, an organization that seeks to build community around nature connection.
Happy Spring Foraging and Preserving!