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Bear's Onions

(post, Jon Clark)


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Bear onions? Why would these be called bear onions? I turned to my usual methods for sleuthing items from the farmer's market that I don't recognize. I start with the Hungarian name and try to find a reference on the internet with a scientific name; then I use that scientific name to search for the English handle. In this instance medvehagyma, a word I can translate with my very limited Hungarian to "bear onions," turned into allium ursinum. This translates to ramsons, or wild garlic, or bear's garlic. According to Wikipedia, it is a close relative of the chive, and I can smell the resemblance! So what do bears have to do with these leaves that look like they were stripped from a Lilly of the valley? Again according to Wikipedia, brown bears love to dig up the bulbs in the spring when both the plant and animal come out of hibernation.

The bulbs spring forth with the water and sunshine and so do the bears in need of some good fresh nutrients, and what easier plant to find than one that you just need to follow your nose to! And why not? We all know garlic is good for us, and there are studies and articles (here and here) to back this up. Bear's garlic, like most or all varieties, contains sulfur compounds (divinyl sulfide, dimethyl thiosulfonate, methyl cystein sulfoxide and the latter’s degradation products: methyl allyl thiosulfonate and methanethiol). It was only upon looking up these compounds that I learned what the plant really does for our health. All of those sulfur compounds relax blood vessels and may fight chances of developing various cancers. When preparing garlic and garlic varieties be sure to chop, mince, or crush your garlic at least 10 minutes before cooking it. According to said studies and articles that time is needed to produce the enzymes to do all of this good work. And it's yet another reason to complete your mise en place!

After I got them home and washed them I noticed the smell had dissipated. If one is worried he or she might be eating a Lilly of the valley instead of ramsons, don't panic; simply rub the leaf. If you smell garlic, you're at the right plant! According to a few sources, including Spice Pages, there are no other species that look like allium ursinum_ that have any hint of garlic as part of their profile, but always be careful when foraging. For my North American readers there are many celebrated relatives of ramsons (including ramps!), but I have found no evidence that ramsons grow in your backyard, unless of course they hitched a ride as good plant species often find ways of doing.

When I first tasted it by itself I was welcomed with a fresh garlic taste and a crisp texture similar to fresh romaine lettuce. Ramsons can be eaten as part of a salad or make up an entire salad on its own; the flowers and bulb may be eaten as well. I found the flavor of flowers to be even stronger than the leaves. As I continued my research on this plant I found numerous allusions to eating the plant leaves as fresh as possible because the perfume will fill the kitchen and not the food when cooked too much. Think about stirring some chopped leaves into a just finished potato cream soup and letting the heat soften them. As a pesto it has a dominant "green" flavor with only a little bit of a spicy edge. Yum!

Happy "bear" hunting!