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Mountain Scene: Foraging for Appalachian Groceries.

In West Virginia there is usually a two-month window between April and May to find ramps and morel mushrooms. This is a sure sign that spring has sprung, and if you’re willing to invest the time and effort, tis the season to find two of nature’s most flavorful foods.

Starting in early April many local folks harvest ramps or pick them up at the local farmer’s market. These are one of the first edible plants to appear in spring and is a hallmark of seasonal cooking in the mountains. Ramps are a wild leek and an excellent source of vitamin C. They are a pungent herb best known for their flavor, which is part onion, part garlic. In early April, they grow rapidly and form dense carpets in rich damp soils. Bright sunlight and rain trigger their growth, making them easy to recognize. They typically cultivate in lumps of lush green leaves, each one broad, flat, and spear-shaped and it is possible to dig up handfuls at a time. Ramps are celebrated each spring throughout West Virginia with celebrations, festivals, and family gatherings. (See event listings at the end of this feature).

Ramps are very versatile in sauces and salads. A dish growing in popularity among ramp connoisseurs is ramp pizza. Ramps can also be pickled so you can enjoy them all year.

Morel mushrooms might be considered a delicacy but the process of finding them is anything but delicate. Many natives, such as David Cole (pictured) from Monroe County, know this because they have been hunting for them since childhood and typically keep their favorite spots protected. In West Virginia, there’s a narrow window to be lucky enough to find these wild mushrooms. And it’s worth the effort because these rare mushrooms are not only lucrative (sometimes selling for $50/lb) but are also one of nature’s most gourmet natural foods. They are highly desired among chefs and mushroom enthusiasts.

There are 6 varieties of morels in West Virginia’s forests and they are the easiest mushrooms to identify, if you are fortunate to spot them. They are fleshy and have a pitted, cone-shape cap that forms into a honeycomb with a deeply indented outer skin, perched atop a rubbery stalk. Some foragers describe morels as resembling a sponge or pine cone. They range in color from tan to dark brown and measure about 3”-8” in height.

Morels should never be eaten raw. They can be baked, creamed, fried, or sautéed. A common way to prepare them is to sauté them in butter. Many folks first dip the morels in eggs and milk, then dip them in cornmeal, and then fried in a pan for a few minutes on each side.  If you are foraging for morels, be vigilant as more than 1,700 species of mushrooms grow in fields and wooded areas of the state and not all are edible.

If you don’t feel like foraging this season, check out these upcoming events. On Saturday, May 1, 2-9pm, the Lost Paddle and Grille at ACE Adventure Resort in Oak Hill invites you to Ramp It Up! Ramp Festival featuring live music by Poor Taters and Long Point String Band. They will celebrate this regional culinary delicacy and the coming of spring with a ramp-focused dining experience with traditional ramp dishes and contemporary ramp explorations. Some menu items include a Wood-Fired Ramp & Potato Pizza, Ramp O’roni Rolls, Ramp Quiche, and Ramp Meatloaf.

Later next month on Saturday May 15th check out the 82nd Feast of the Ramson Ramp Festival, from 10a-4p, in downtown Richwood. There will be local Appalachian music, unique arts and crafts, and a highly anticipated ramp dinner. This event is hosted by Richwood Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB, and City of Richwood.

Happy foraging!

– Hashtag Lewisburg City Paper #130. April 2021.

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