This is the time of year when we can once again begin to find fresh local food in our markets and grocery stores. It’s been a long winter, and as much as we can support our local farmers by buying parsnips and turnips and cabbage and potatoes along with dried and preserved produce from last year’s harvest, it’s great to contemplate the arrival of fresh Ontario greens in May. Some of us will be getting a head start on Ontario’s food bounty this month by harvesting wild leeks.
These delicious plants grow abundantly where they grow at all. They are very soil-specific and there are many environments they don’t like… especially areas where there is human or animal traffic. To find them, you have to go out into the bush and seek moist soil, shaded by hardwood (especially sugar maples), away from trails. They are easy to spot at this time of year, since they form large green patches on the otherwise brown forest floor. You’ll often find them where there are lots of trilliums. I’m lucky to have a patch in the forest behind my house, and I’ve located a number of plots in the Short Hills.
The wild leek (also called wild garlic) is nothing like the domesticated variety of leek; its leaf looks very much like lily-of-the-valley, a bright green spear-shaped leaf with a short, reddish stalk leading to a small bulb. The foolproof way to determine if you’ve found them is to break off a leaf and smell; the garlic-onion odour is strong enough to make them unmistakable.
One word of caution before we go any further: do not take more than a handful from any single patch. Wild leeks take up to four years to propagate themselves from seed and spread very slowly in their patches. They can be transplanted if dug up very carefully and replanted in a suitable place (as already mentioned, they are very choosy about where they will grow), but you have to wait two years to see if the transplant “took” because it takes that long for them to reappear. In some jurisdictions such as Québec, wild leeks are a protected species and harvest is limited to 50 stalks; it would be a shame to see them so decimated here that such regulation became necessary. There are a few stores where you can buy them and at least one online site sells Ontario wild leeks from a sustainable source.
So, what’s all the fuss about once you have found a patch and harvested a few plants? Enthusiasts just wash and eat them for a treat that is somewhere between a green onion and a garlic shoot. Others add them raw to salads or coarsely chop them and sprinkle over new potatoes along with some butter and salt. When they are cooked, they become more mellow and add a delicate flavour to soups or stews. They can be substituted for green onions in just about any dish and provide a bigger flavour hit than the onion.
In the Appalachian states the wild leek, called “ramp” down south, is far more prolific and common than it is here, and festivals are held around harvest time to celebrate the taste. Ramp eating contests, cooking competitions, and ramp specialties in the local restaurants are part of the late April to early May festivities in many towns from southern Pennsylvania to Virginia.
My own favorite preparation is to add a handful of chopped wild leeks at the last minute to potatoes frying in bacon grease. When the potatoes are done and the leeks are softened but not brown, serve them with the bacon and a fried egg or two for a breakfast that will fuel your spring cleaning activity all day.
A final note on these wonderful forest plants: juice from the bulbs was used by natives to treat insect bites… a useful trick since harvesting wild leeks in the bush at this time of year is sure to result in black fly bites!