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Fiddleheads — Free For The Picking

Some people are unapologetic foragers. They are morel hunters, berry pickers and hazelnut gatherers. Along with morels, fiddleheads are one of the most popular wild delicacies of spring, and like morel hunters, fiddlehead foragers are very secretive about their harvesting locations.

Fiddleheads are the coiled, immature fronds of the ostrich fern. They acquired their name because they resemble the ornamentally carved wooden scroll above the neck of a violin or fiddle. Once unfurled, the tall, feathery stalks of the fern resemble ostrich plumes, hence the name.

I first became familiar with fiddleheads when, while horseback riding, I happened upon a springtime “meadow of ferns” in a damp, low-lying area in the woods not far from my house.

Since that time, it has been my May tradition to take a little basket into the woods and pick enough fiddleheads to make at least one dish to share. The season is fleeting, lasting only a week or two, depending on the weather.

Ostrich ferns spread by underground runners, so you most often find them growing in a colony, making harvesting convenient. The little scrolls appear from the crown of the plant and it is recommended that you pick no more than three fiddleheads from each crown. Overpicking will kill the plant. Snip the stems (don’t pull) to one inch from where the fronds begin to uncurl.

Fiddleheads pack a nutritional punch, providing vitamins A, B3 and C, as well as calcium, iron and potassium. But, besides that, they are a delicious treat from nature’s bounty, with a vibrant-green colour and a “mossy” flavour vaguely reminiscent of asparagus. Once unfurled though, ostrich ferns taste quite bitter.

The first step in preparing your wild harvest is to rub the papery, light-brown scales off the fiddleheads. Then, because fiddlehead coils can trap soil, the next step in their preparation is to thoroughly rinse them in three or four changes of clean, cool water. Finally, before continuing with whatever recipe you have a taste for, the fiddleheads should be parboiled for 10 minutes in boiling, salted water. I confess I am guilty of speeding up this process by using the microwave. (Note: Health Canada advises against eating fiddleheads in their raw state.)

There are loads of ways to cook the fiddleheads, but perhaps the most common is simply to sauté them in butter and add salt, freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Because I only harvest a healthy handful, I like to put my fiddleheads on top of a quiche. Their flavour pairs really well with a mild, white cheese and they look so pretty.

To read more about the harvest of fiddleheads and their preparation check out www.wildharvest.com. To find a simple recipe for making pickled fiddleheads, go to localfoods.about.com/od/spring/r/fiddleheadpickl.htm.

Fiddleheads have been picked for centuries in Canada. In Quebec and the Maritimes, fiddleheads are plentiful and sold by foragers for upwards of $12 a pound. The good news is that if you locate and harvest your own, they’re free!

– Candy Irwin writes from Lake Audy, Manitoba

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