Hunting Morels and Ramps in North Carolina
It’s a Sunday in late April and Alan Muskat is pied-pipering us up a lush green hill north of Asheville, NC. Muskat has been foraging this area for going on 30 years. He’s turned it into an industry with his No Taste Like Home tours, and today he has seven of us acolytes in tow. This is Muskat’s ramps-and-morels tour and though I’m hearing time and again that it’s been a lousy year for morels in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I’m ever hopeful.
The going is slow. But that’s in large part because there’s so much to see. Wild lettuce. Two kinds of mint—including one which smells nothing of mint but rather of moss and salad herbs. Soon, we’re crushing the leaves of a tree-like shrub, the Lindera, between our fingers and inhaling the red-fruit scent of spicebush, bending over to ogle rubbery wood ear mushrooms—Auricularia auricula—sprouting from a stick, and walking past acres of waterleaf.
I get antsy and admit to pulling ahead. I’ve heard there are morels and ramps at this high hilltop destination and I’m eager to get to them. So eager, it seems, that my morel radar is shot. I walk right by a beautiful yellow morel—Morchella esculenta—still greyish in color, never noticing it.
Over the course of several hours we cruise the steep hillsides; up, then down. Another tour participant, Robert, keeps me company as we descend into a valley, hunting morels among ash trees. He’s been hunting mushrooms forever, too. And yet, we both come up short on morels in this valley, though I do stumble upon a pretty patch of ramps.
At lunch, I sit in poison ivy and listen to the group tell tales. (We’ll see if that comes back to haunt me.) Then, it’s back up the hill again, and over the top, following the now-barefooted—and clearly braver than me—Muskat back toward our cars. He stops in a sea of North Carolina waterplant and harvests a handful to chew on, and I follow suit. Each stem is lush with liquid; its flavor the green of celery and barely sweet grapes.
It may be a bad year for morels, but we don’t come up empty-handed. In the end, the group pulls 18 morels out of these woods, albeit with little help from me. Where we do best is in the ramps. Together, standing near a barn, we trim the green tops of several dozen, then combine them at the end and share. I take them home with me to cook, at my camper, one of my all-time favorite recipes—Pa Jun—Korean pancakes—which I stuff full of ramps.
Pa Jun, aka Korean Pancakes, with Ramps
While any meat or vegetable can be used, I love these with ramps.
2 large eggs
1/3 cup flour
1/2 t salt
ramps, whatever parts on hand (greens and whites or either) chopped small
1/2 c water
Fill a pitcher with ice and 1/2 c water. Set aside
Whisk eggs to frothy. Add flour and salt and whisk to combine. Add ramps and stir to blend. Add 1/2 cup water and stir to blend. Cover bottom of a pan with vegetable oil and heat. Pour batter into hot pan. Let brown, then flip.
Serve with dipping sauce.
3 Tablespoons rice wine vinegar
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
pinch red hot pepper flakes
Combine and mix well.