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The thieves set out furtively in the predawn darkness. They often work in gangs, armed with cellphones, getaway cars and their weapons of choice - shovels.

Officers say one thing gives them away, however: They reek of garlic.

Each spring, the pungent larcenists stalk Quebec's awakening forests. They're wild-garlic poachers, ready to break the law in pursuit of their tasty but forbidden loot.

"It's a constant battle," says Guy Venne, a senior officer with the provincial wildlife protection service in Western Quebec.

Wild garlic was declared a vulnerable species in Quebec in 1995 after overpicking threatened to turn it into the cod of the plant world. The province banned commercial sales and passed a law forbidding harvesting for more than personal consumption.

That has created a lively black market for a plant that has long been a staple of Quebec kitchens. And it has prompted increasingly desperate tactics by poachers eager to satisfy the appetite for wild-garlic risottos and vinaigrettes.

One day last week, wildlife officers in camouflage staked out a wild-garlic poacher for nearly an hour along a side road north of the Ottawa River. The thief emerged from the forest, looked both ways, and hopped into his car.

"I put on my siren and pulled up in front of him to block his car," wildlife officer Eric Thériault said. He and partner Stéphane Drouin seized a grocery bag full of garlic that weighed as much as a large bowling ball. Inside were 2,300 illegal bulbs. "He said he needed the garlic for his high blood pressure," said Mr. Thériault, who wears a bulletproof vest. "We hear it all."

Wild garlic, also known as wild leeks or ramps, is among the first shoots of spring, so it's easy to spot with its vivid green leaves shaped like rabbit ears. The plant grows in Quebec maple forests, mostly on private land. Foragers in Quebec may legally pick no more than 50 bulbs a person, but officers say it's not uncommon to stop poachers hauling hockey bags stuffed with thousands.

Wildlife officers in the Outaouais, the hot spot for garlic poaching along with the Quebec Eastern Townships, confiscated 90,000 bulbs and charged 75 people for poaching-related offences last year. The year before, 50 people - found with 32,100 bulbs - were charged. A single picker last year was fined $10,000 for being in possession of a mind-boggling 7,829 bulbs.

What drives the underground racket? In the Outaouais, it's the neighbourhood. Officers say the region near Ottawa is a prime location for poaching because wild garlic can be taken across the boundary with Ontario, where it can be harvested and sold legally.

Some of it winds up in Ottawa's popular Byward Market, Quebec officers say.

Last Friday afternoon, wild garlic - origin unknown - was selling at the market for 75 cents for four or five stalks.

But Mr. Venne said that a full wild garlic stalk with the bulb and leaves can fetch as much as $1. So the lure of quick profit spurs the poachers, the vast majority of whom are never caught. They unload the contraband through underground networks, and it eventually finds its way to friends, flea markets, or ends up pickled in Quebec bars.

It sounds like the kind of covert activity normally associated with the cocaine or opium trade. In some ways, the comparison isn't that far off. The humble Allium tricoccum has had its addicts for centuries.

Back in 1623, the explorer Frère Sagard extolled the tasty attributes of wild garlic in New France, although natives who took a whiff of the eater's breath "spit on the ground in horror."

Today, wild garlic still has the kind of star appeal that comes from being ephemeral. It's only available for about three weeks a year, a surefire way of adding to its cachet among foodies and top chefs. In Quebec, it's even rarer.

Normand Laprise of Toqué, one of Montreal's top restaurants, receives enough wild garlic to offer it at his posh establishment for only two or three nights a year. He gets it from a legal supplier who sells him no more than the 50-bulb limit, enough to allow Mr. Laprise to put a wild-garlic tuna tartar and wild-garlic purée with squab on his $95 menu dégustation this month.

"It has a very fine, very perfumed taste of garlic. It's gentle. I adore it," the renowned chef said.

Alas, you "need a connection" to get your hands on it in Quebec, Mr. Laprise said. He feels more than a pinch of envy toward his fellow chefs in Ontario, who can avail themselves legally and abundantly of the treasured prize. "It's true," Mr. Laprise said, "I find them very lucky."