Nothing could be simpler than harvesting fiddleheads. But it’s a sound idea to be accompanied by a seasoned gatherer on your first time out. I felt fortunate to tag along with lifelong Mainer Michael Brooker, who gamely offered to show me the ropes. He took me to a lovely spot on his property, where the open woods sloped down to the edge of a beaver pond. It was a lovely site and would have been well worth an outing even without the prospect of harvesting the scrumptious morsels.
Mike showed me how to identify the correct species. He patiently presented examples of fiddleheads that were past the correct stage for harvesting, which is simple, because as soon as leaves begin to start bursting out of the tightly coiled frond, their peak has passed. I had expected him to demonstrate a particular type of setting for the Ostrich ferns, but it turned out, the plants weren’t that picky: fiddleheads were to be found in the soft earth at the margins of the pond, uphill from the water, in shade, and in the soft mid-May sunshine.
I marveled at Mike’s visual acuity: it seemed that in the time it took me to identify my next target, Mike had found at least half a dozen ferns and plucked them clean. It was the work of only an hour or two for him to fill the large canvas bag suspended from his belt.
To be fair, I was pretty distracted, this being my first foray into the springtime Boreal Forest. When not picking, I kept myself well entertained by observing the many amazing local plants coming into bloom in Maine’s sudden spring: dog-tooth violets, bleeding heart, and more.
Even so, despite taking pictures and incessant botanizing, I managed to come away with enough of the tender fronds to make a nice introduction to this venerable tradition. We washed them carefully, steamed them lightly, and served in the simplest way possible, with a dash of salt and pepper and a bit of butter. The flavor was delicate and mild, the texture was very tender and not the least bit stringy or bitter. We found them delicious in an understated way, and I was hooked. Next year, I will set my sights higher and eagerly plan to restock my typically-depleted springtime freezer.
Fiddleheads are often pickled and there are many ways to do so. The following is a recipe, from the University of Main Coperative Extension Bulletine #4198, entitled ‘Facts on Fiddleheads,” that will show you how to preserve your harvest.
Bread and Butter Fiddlehead Pickles
Yield: 6 Pints
4 Pounds fiddleheads
3 Large onions, thinly sliced
½ Cup salt
3 Trays ice cubes
5 Cups sugar
5 Cups cider vinegar
1 ½ Tsp turmeric
1 ½ Tsp celery seeds
1 ½ Tsp mustard seeds
In 8-quart enamel, stainless steel or glass container, stir fiddleheads, onions, salt, and enough cold water to cover fiddleheads until salt dissolves; stir in ice. Cover; let stand in cool place 3 hours. Drain fiddleheads and rinse with cold running water; drain thoroughly.
Measure sugar, vinegar, turmeric, celery seed, and mustard seeds into 8-quart Dutch oven or heavy saucepan. Over high heat, heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low; simmer, uncovered 30 minutes, stirring often. Meanwhile, prepare jars and caps. Add fiddleheads and onions to Dutch oven; heat to boiling. Spoon hot fiddleheads into hot jars to ¼ inch from the top. Immediately ladle syrup over fiddleheads. Process 15 minutes in boiling water process canner. Cool jars and test for air tightness.
For more information, see this more in-depth article on Fiddleheads.
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants, since 2004. He has recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.