An Old Friend’s Cousin

The U.S. has ramps; Europeans have ransoms.

Winter seems to be trying extra hard this year, keeping us cold well into March and surprising us with the odd late-season snow flurry. But spring is coming, and coming soon—you can see it in the tight buds on the trees. In New York’s Union Square Greenmarket the nurseries started showing up ten days ago with shelves as tall as I am, loaded with trays of plant starts. A few of the farmers who take the winter off have arrived with last fall’s roots and cabbage to sell. The long dark season is nearly over, and soon there will be vegetables to cook.

One of my favorite things about spring is the abundance of wild foods, most especially the wild leeks called ramps. You can imagine, then, how delighted I was to see what looked like those familiar leaves in the northern German city of Hamburg as I was shopping for dinner last week. I was making my way through the kilometer-long market that runs under the train tracks in the Hoheluft neighborhood when the seller at an organic produce stand showed them to me with obvious pride. I asked my host Andrea about them. “They’re called bärlauch in German—this means ‘bear’s garlic.’” “Do they have little white bulbs at the end, and a red stem?” “I wouldn’t know,” Andrea told me. “Only the leaves are sold here.” We added a couple of bunches to our basket. I noticed, as we continued through the market, that many of the produce stands had them displayed prominently. “It’s the season—they last only so long,” Andrea told me, “It’s funny—I’ve only seen them in the markets here in the last few years.”

Some research back at home turned up the English name: “ransoms.” They’re a different species from ramps but fill the same cultural and culinary role—a gift from the wild world to ours at the beginning of spring, and a cause for celebration.

At dinner time I cut some spinach, chard, and the ransoms into thin strips, piled them under a piece of white fish, and cooked it all en papillote. When we opened the packets we got a heady dose of the sharp, sweet smell of spring.

Subscribe to Gourmet