“It’s like a magic trick!” exclaims my friend Karen as Melvin Nash pulls away last year’s dried grass to expose rich green fiddleheads poking through the earth. It’s an overcast Friday morning in early May and we are standing in a field just off highway 105 between Fredericton and Jemseg. We are on the hunt for that great New Brunswick delicacy: the fiddlehead. For two to three weeks each spring the furled fronds of young ostrich ferns are a common site at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and on the tables of the best local restaurants. While it’s easy enough to find fiddleheads for sale, we opted for hands on experience. We ended up with about 25 pounds of fiddleheads. Not bad for a couple of hours of leisurely foraging.
Melvin Nash has literally written the book on fiddleheading and he very generously offered to spend his day sharing his knowledge with three fiddlehead rookies.
Where to go? Fiddlehead fanatics can be quite protective of their best foraging spots but there’s some very obvious locations – think about the areas where you typically see ferns growing in the summer such low lying fields, shady glens and river banks.
When to go? “When the dandelions begin to bloom it’s time to start looking for fiddleheads,” says Melvin. The season typically lasts for only a few weeks and fiddleheads grow fast so if you see some the right size don’t wait to pick them.
What to bring? It’s pretty low-tech - if you have hands and some pockets you can get yourself a little haul. But Melvin prefers to use a knife to make a cleaner cut. He also uses beautiful traditional baskets made by Vincent Bear of Tobique First Nation. The ultimate in form meets function, the baskets went right into the stream when it came time to soak and rinse the fiddleheads.
How to harvest? You’re looking for deep green, tightly furled ferns. They can be a couple of inches to several inches in length. The stalks are flavourful too so don’t just pick off the tops. You want to snap or cut close to the crown while being careful not to cut into the crown. Each plant can have several rings of growth so if you harvest the first ring of fiddleheads off a plant without damaging the crown, you could come back and get the next round of growth in a few days.
How do I not poison myself? In matters of foraging this always seems to be the number one concern-how to be sure you don’t pick the wrong thing. Melvin very helpfully pointed out the other common ferns that you’d do well to avoid. Once you’ve seen them alongside the edible ostrich fern fiddleheads, it’s really easy to tell the difference.
Most sources will tell you that there is a natural toxin in raw fiddleheads so never eat them uncooked. However at the risk of upsetting Health Canada and my mother, I can tell you we all tried raw fiddleheads on Friday with no ill effects.
Once we’d filled our baskets, Melvin showed us the secret to cleaning fiddleheads. We stopped along the river and Melvin spread out a tarp. He grinned enigmatically as we tried to guess the various winnowing techniques he might teach us. Turns out it was much simpler. He simply raised the basket over his head and shook the fiddleheads onto the tarp. That was it. Like magic the dried brown papery bits and the green fiddleheads separated themselves into two piles.
“Could have used more of a breeze,” shrugged Melvin. But we were impressed as we gathered up the fiddleheads for step two of the cleaning process.
As with a lot of wild foods, debate rages around the proper cleaning and handling of fiddleheads. Melvin maintains that the ill-effects people fear in fiddleheads are more than likely introduced by rinsing them in less than clean water sources.
To rinse and cook our fiddleheads, we headed to the home of David and Carol Ray of Estey’s Bridge northwest of Fredericton. A clean, swift stream full of trout and salmon runs through their backyard. We lugged our haul down to the water and into the stream the baskets went to soak for a few minutes. Then we put a small amount of fiddleheads in one basket, scooped it through the stream to fill it with water and turned the basket back and forth shaking out the water and rinsing away debris.
If your kitchen is not equipped with tarps and streams, a good rinse in the kitchen sink and rubbing away any brown bits should do the trick.
We headed back to Carol and David’s kitchen for a classic “feed” of fiddleheads. Cover the fiddleheads with water in a pot and bring to a boil for seven minutes (again with apologies to Health Canada, Melvin insists that the recommended 10 minutes is too long if you want a proper tender crisp fiddlehead.) Drain. Let a large hunk of butter melt over them. Plate them up and add a drizzle of vinegar.
This is the most simple and delicious way to enjoy them. But it’s far from the only way.
Tell us, what’s your favorite way to enjoy fiddleheads?