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Nature Notes: Fiddle Time

Ed Robinson
April 1, 2018
Photo by Marc Quebec, iStock

After living in England for many years, a country with a reputation for underwhelming dining choices, our move to Maine offered great promise for mouthwatering foods. Succulent tiny shrimp, clams for the digging, scallops, lobster, moose if I was lucky, trout and blueberries all landed on my Maine dining plate. Oh, there have been a few mild surprises – your twelve inch whoopee pies, a drink with Moxie and, of course, heart-stopping poutine. But we were caught off guard by Maine’s springtime delight in chowing down on ferns.

Well, not just any ferns; ostrich ferns in particular and specifically the top of a new frond called a fiddlehead. If ever there was a food with an obvious name, this is it. I’ve seen a lot of ferns in my life, even marveled at some large specimens in rain forests and the high Rockies, but it never occurred to me to plop them in a frying pan.

I lay the blame on my parents and their dining habits. Children of the Great Depression, they grew up on hardscrabble hill farms in southern New York and learned to eat what was available. Long before the Paleo diet took Hollywood by storm, my mother served up a lot of vegan foods – dandelion and beet greens, horseradish, ramps and burdock. I don’t recall eating nettles or garlic mustard, but they were probably in the mix. Unfortunately, Mom was not the most enlightened cook, so a lot of these items were overcooked or downright unpleasant – boiled parsnips in hot milk anyone? I detested most of it and rebelled to the point where I didn’t eat green salads until I left college.

So all of you food foragers out there, please forgive me if I didn’t take to fiddleheads right off the bat. It’s an acquired taste, ok? But I love pickles (Grandma made all kinds of weird ones), I scarf down capers and I have eaten lots of wild carrot roots on Boy Scout trips. Let’s agree that I am learning to enjoy fiddleheads, but don’t expect me to be first in line waiting for the delivery trucks to show up.

The ostrich fern carries a twister of a scientific name (Matteuciia struthiopteris) – say that quickly three times after a few nips of hard cider! In ancient Greek the word “struthio” means ostrich and “pterion” means wing. When you see this graceful plant at maturity, you can easily see the logic for the name. Also called the shuttlecock or fiddlehead fern, it is found in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere and across much of North America, mostly in areas of moderate temperatures and sufficient moisture. Bright green in spring and early summer, it is lovely when seen in a natural setting along a pond or river and has become popular for landscaping. While fragile in appearance, the plant may reach more than five feet in height, is capable of substantial colonization and can withstand all but the worst flooding.

While there are many varieties of fern in our region, not all of them are well suited for human consumption. Some ferns, like bracken, may be toxic if not cooked fully; others are believed to have mild carcinogenicity. But fiddleheads from the ostrich fern are generally considered safe for consumption if you are confident in your plant identification and you follow recommendations for preparing the food (they should not be eaten raw because of the risk of microbes and toxins).

At a time when we are looking for more nutritious foods, especially those that qualify as natural and organic, fiddleheads have much to recommend them. Not only are they low in sodium and high in iron, potassium and dietary fiber, but they are also a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and have shown antioxidant activity. Fiddleheads were traditionally harvested by Native Americans and today are consumed around the world, with a wide variety of recipes. There are now commercial operations in places like eastern Canada, and the village of Tide Head in New Brunswick markets itself as the “Fiddlehead Capital of the World.” Not surprisingly, in some areas overharvesting of wild plants has been a problem. If you are foraging for your own use, the recommended approach is to pick no more than half of the fiddleheads in a plant cluster to allow the plant to survive and regenerate.

While they are available fresh for only a few weeks during springtime, fiddleheads are now sold year-round either frozen or pickled. When I looked online to see how chefs are preparing the fiddleheads, I found no shortage of advice on both wild harvesting and the preparation of the vegetable. The simplest cooking style is to steam or boil them, then to add butter, vinegar, lemon or garlic to taste, but noted chef Martha Stewart offers recipes for fiddleheads that call for sautéing the vegetable and serving it with a sauce like hollandaise. Many eat fiddleheads cooked fresh and enjoy the earthy flavor that has been described as “spring-like with a hint of nuts or mushroom.”

In the Middle Ages of England, there was a common belief that if you carried the magic “fern seed” you would be invisible to others. This myth found its way into Shakespeare’s Henry IV, when Falstaff, Poins and Prince Hal propose to rob a merchant of his riches in the early morning hours. One of Falstaff’s henchmen informs another that “…we have the fern seed, we walk invisible.” The underlying problem is that ferns don’t produce seeds – they reproduce by spreading tiny spores, a trait they share with mushrooms and moss. By the late 1600s, early scientists working with the most rudimentary microscopes were able to detect these dust-like spores, but even the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was unsure whether the tiny particles served as seeds or pollen.

It’s a shame that “fern seed” doesn’t confer invisibility – that would sure come in handy when my wife comes looking for me with another “To Do” list in hand!

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