Several years ago, I was working at a small chalet in Switzerland. As the Spring snow began to melt, the chef would take me into the wooded hillsides to gather young shoots he called "l'ail des ours," or bear's garlic. As the name indicates, this is one of the first foods of the bear's coming out of hibernation. I had never heard of them before. They were very fragrant, and patches were abundant. We would gather large bags full of the leaves and make them into pureed sauces or pestos with a flavor and aroma of leeks and green garlic.
On a recent visit to Switzerland this Easter, I saw them again at the farmer's market in Zug. This beautiful lake town is in the German-speaking region, where the plants are called "baerlauch," or bear's leek. What I did not know of until then was the two toxic look-alikes of baerlauch, the herbstzeitlose (colchicum autumnale), and maiglockchen (convallaria majalis). I thought about how carefree I used to gather them with my chef. He didn't seem too concerned about the toxic imposters.
Every year, as the season approaches, newspapers and televisions show pictures of the three plants to minimize the annual incidents of food poisoning. If this sounds unfamiliar to most American cooks and foragers, it is because the bear's leek, ramsons (allium ursinium) as they are known in English, do not grow in North America. Instead, we have ramps (allium tricoccum), whose name comes from its European cousin. Ramps have fewer leaves and a handsomely developed bulb. To my palate, the flavor of ramson is more like wild garlic, whereas a ramp tastes more like a wild spring onion. The ramps pictured below are the first of the season. As time goes on, the bulb near the roots becomes more pronounced.
Both plants offer an early taste of spring in these fresh, green and fragrant plants. It is a fleeting harvest with a season of usually less than a month. In Switzerland, we were canning ramson sauces to extend the season into summer. We'll be pickling ramps in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, my foraging friends and I have finally accepted the fact that ramps do not grow in this part of the country. What we have comes to us from the Great Lakes and the Appalachians, but we'll enjoy whatever they send our way. We often yearn for distant flavors, and the memories that come with them.