By Kevin Chap
Photographs by Michael Fisher and Aron Meinhardt
Stylist Jennifer Rutherford
As spring settles upon the wildlands of Vermont, the heavy blanket of winter’s snow recedes, leaving only speckles of white patches scattered across the highest elevations. These early days create an opening, not just for Mother Nature and her brood, but for the hearts of food adventurers as the foraging season commences. During this time, crops such as fiddleheads, ramps, and morels all begin awakening from the rich soil in staggering abundance.
Ramps appear while snow patches still dot the Vermont highlands, using the snowmelt as a source for nutrients and water. Being a succulent in the lily family, these delicious and aromatic plants require a landscape still damp from the receding snowline. Rich in vitamins A and C, it is their smell that tips foragers off to their location. The unmistakable pungent onion and garlic bouquet lets those explorers know they are on the right track. A specialty crop that is celebrated up and down the East Coast from Canada to South Carolina, ramps have entered the pantheon of food lore in Vermont since the time the Abenaki populated the landscape. In fact, Vermont’s longest river, the Winooski, is named after these little beauties, which translates from the native tongue to “Onion River.”
Early season foragers take to oldgrowth forests for stands of elm and ash trees that harbor the mighty morel mushrooms, one of the most coveted wild foods the world over. The forest canopy has already opened as these magical mycelia make their appearance, preferring the mature tree shade to open pasturelands. This is one of those rare crops that cannot be cultivated, and so the only means for consumption comes from the adventure of foragers setting out to collect the bounty that Mother Nature can provide.
Their earthy aroma and flavor are reflective of the trees that create their birthplace and, almost overnight, the forest floor comes alive with their small, bulbous heads emerging like that of a newborn child. And oh, the taste. Their meaty texture complements dishes as varied as grains to steak and can be coupled with subtle and crisp white wines all the way to the most robust Cabernet that can be found. Multidimensional is the only word that truly captures the personality of this wild edible in their culinary diversity.
Simultaneously, fiddleheads can be seen burgeoning forth to round out the big three wild crops of spring. The steep banks of mountain streams trap the steam from warming waters, and misty mornings in Vermont’s river valleys make for mythic encounters. This is where one hunts for the fiddle. Fiddleheads are an everyman food, at least in the foraging world. They are perhaps the most prolific and most easily relatable wild edible in Vermont. Renamed by the pioneers for their resemblance to the instrument they carried from Ireland and Scotland, these gems hold a particular gravitas throughout the Northeast. But don’t let familiarity fool you. There are only five different varieties of ferns considered edible in their emergence, only one considered choice: the ostrich fern. It is the only real selection, and although they are prolific, their harvestable stage lasts as little as two weeks, making for a rush to find as many harvestable patches as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Their deep-emerald-green color, smooth neck, and golden furrow make them unmistakable. But take care—proper preparation is a must when bringing them from field to table. Although high in iron, potassium, and vitamins A and C, they must be blanched before being consumed. Their high levels of thiaminase make them slightly toxic if consumed in large quantities. As with any wild food, it is best to use caution and to learn how our natural surroundings support us but still always hold them in the deepest respect.