Fiddleheads, a Maine tradition

By Tom Seymour | May 24, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Ostrich fern fiddleheads are a spring treat.

For many people, it wouldn’t be springtime in Maine without a plate of fresh-picked fiddleheads. It’s a rite of spring greatly anticipated by those who love the tightly packed, emerging fronds of ostrich ferns.

Every species of fern goes through the fiddlehead stage. That is, upon emerging each spring, the fern sends up a curled “fiddlehead,” named after the headstock of a violin or fiddle. As a professional forager, people often ask me if other ferns besides ostrich fern, Matteuccia strathiopteris, are edible. Well, yes and no.

The only other fern commonly used for its edible fiddleheads is bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum. But bracken fern presents several problems. First, research in Japan shows that excessive consumption of bracken ferns leads to cancer. That alone should be sufficient reason to stay away from this common woodland fern. Additionally, bracken ferns, when ingested, destroy vitamin B1 (thiamine).

So yes, bracken ferns are edible, but to eat them is to tempt fate. Better to stick to ostrich ferns, which do not come with dire health warnings. I am convinced that ostrich fern fiddleheads, like most wild, plant-based foods, are a source of much-needed trace elements and minerals. Besides that, they taste great.

Gone fiddleheading

Ostrich fern fiddleheads, from here on called simply, “fiddleheads,” emerge about the same time as stinging nettles. Emergence dates coincide with the time when dandelions are at their best. So during the first few warm days in May, people go, “fiddleheading.” Unfortunately, this is also the time when blackflies hatch out in earnest, so insect repellent is a must.

Fiddleheads prefer damp, rich ground. They take well to transplanting and are sometimes found in shady, damp woodland settings. But mostly, fiddleheads grow along the alluvial plain, that nutrient-rich swath of fertile ground on either side of slow-moving streams.

Fiddleheads are covered by a brown, parchment-like substance that is rich in bitter tannin and for that reason must be removed before cooking. And while it sounds tedious, it is far better to remove this papery substance when the fiddlehead is dry than wet. Simply dousing fiddleheads under a stream of running water makes the thin, bitter parchment stick to the thing like grim death.

My method entails removing as much of the brown paper as possible before snapping the fiddlehead’s stem. This may be as simple as tweaking the thing with a snap of a finger. Sometimes, when hurried, I’ll take my fiddleheads home and spread them outdoors on my deck. There, if it’s windy, it’s easy enough to pick the fiddleheads up and then drop them, allowing the breeze to winnow away the lightweight brown parchment.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to use a fan to blow the stuff away. I have even used a hat brim to accomplish the same ends. Only after the brown parchment is removed is it okay to rinse fiddleheads.

Fiddlehead cookery

Fiddleheads work well with several cooking methods. The most common is to just boil until fork-tender. Drained and served with butter, salt and pepper, they make a remarkably delicious dish. Some people enjoy a splash of cider vinegar on their fiddleheads.

Cooked fiddleheads also go well in omelets and quiche. When chilled, cooked fiddleheads make an exciting salad ingredient. I have coated fiddleheads in batter and deep-fried them the same as clams. They were superb. Some people pickle their cooked fiddleheads in a solution of white vinegar and spices. Your imagination is the only limiting factor when preparing fiddleheads.

For those who like fish, fiddleheads and brook trout are a longstanding Maine tradition. But even for those who don’t go fishing, fiddleheads still complement store-bought Atlantic salmon nicely. But fish or not, fiddleheads make a side dish that fits with almost any meal.

Cleaned fiddleheads keep well in the refrigerator. If, after a week or even two, the fiddleheads become wilted, just rinse them in cold water and they regain their fresh-picked texture and taste.

Don’t use plastic bags to store or transport fiddleheads, because on a warm day fiddleheads sweat in the bag, losing freshness. This also causes the brown parchment to cling to the fiddleheads. Far better to use a basket. This allows for free air circulation, something critically important when transporting any fresh-picked wild green.

While not as good as baskets, canvas bags rate a close second. Just stay away from plastic.

If you haven’t yet embraced fiddleheads, perhaps this is the year to give them a try. This may just become the beginning of a favorite yearly tradition.

The author collects fiddleheads for his table. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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