For Maritimers, May means the beautiful and widely-anticipated unfurling of the ostrich fern, otherwise known as the fiddlehead, whose name accurately reflects the shape of that musical instrument.
Especially renowned in New Brunswick, along the banks of the Saint John river, but actually found throughout the Maritimes and New England, these bright green gems like to hide themselves in wet and wild places, making them a forager’s delightful surprise discovery. Once discovered, like their springtime companion, the mayflower, foragers keep tight-lipped about their whereabouts. “Where’s your patch?” is a question you should never ask if you are a dinner guest at a forager’s house and happen to find fiddleheads nestled on your plate.
Fiddleheads are pretty primal-looking critters: like embryonic dragons emerging from small, brown volcanoes, with a papery brown placental husk covering them. Plucking this husk from them takes time, and must be done by hand, making fiddleheads a true labour-intensive delicacy. They should be cooked or steamed for at least 10 minutes—though I’ve occasionally popped a raw one into my mouth (oops! They’re so tempting!) it’s better to err on the side of caution rather than wind up with a case of food poisoning that has been linked to raw or undercooked fiddlehead eating.
Fiddleheads have been a part of my family for years. My grandfather, a passionate lover of the natural world, must have encountered many patches of them on his hikes through the Nova Scotia woods. On one expedition, he was distressed to discover that the woods he had visited in the recent past had been clear-cut: he found a forlorn patch of fiddleheads exposed to the sun, and decided to relocate them to his own woodsy backyard, where they thrived and multiplied—the uneaten ones transformed to a Paleozoic-era fern forest that I enjoyed getting lost in as a child—the soft fronds of the full-fledged ostrich ferns brushing my bare arms and tickling my ears as I passed through, imagining I was a small, intrepid dinosaur living millions of years ago.
You don’t need to be a forager to enjoy the seasonal delight of fiddleheads: they appear pretty consistently at farmers’ markets in the region at this time of year.
Besides eating them steamed with butter, pepper and salt—or spritzed with cider vinegar—I have canned fiddleheads, (admittedly, they lose almost all of their appealing bright green colour this way), frozen them, and made a pretty delicious soup out of them. Because the taste of fiddleheads is kind of a cross between broccoli and asparagus, they lend themselves well to a cream-based soup, which can be made with or without dairy. Even suspicious children will take to this fiddlehead format!
However you eat them, I wish you the happiest of fiddlehead seasons!
Cream of fiddlehead soup
1 large onion, chopped and sautéed in butter or olive oil
5 cups stock, veggie or chicken-based
2-3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups fiddleheads
1 can coconut milk, or about 1 ½ cups homogenized milk or blend, or cream
Saute onion in a small amount of butter or olive oil, adding salt and pepper as it cooks. In a large saucepan or soup pot, heat stock to a simmer over medium heat and add potatoes and fiddleheads to cook (this saves using another pot!), along with cooked onion. After about 15-20 minutes, or whenever the veggies are tender, remove saucepan from the heat, and add coconut or plain milk. Puree the soup with an immersion blender until smooth and creamy. Serve with a generous dollop of butter.