Fiddleheads are a spring delicacy across Canada and finding wild fiddleheads in New Brunswick is a passion for many. Here's where to find this wild Canadian food.
(Cinda Chavich photos)
By CINDA CHAVICH
Austin Watson is a man of few words but he knows what he likes.
“These are beauties,” he says, bending deeply from the waist to nip a fresh fiddlehead from its hiding place in the dusty brown leaf litter.
It’s a sunny spring morning and we’ve barely left his back yard in Marysville, the old cotton mill town on the outskirts of Fredericton, NB, when Mr. Watson, 65, spies the first telltale clumps of emerging ostrich ferns along the banks of the Nashwaak River. The local fiddlehead season started just days ago, when foragers with homemade signs began selling their wild wares on the streets of Fredericton, and already there are others here searching for this seasonal prize.
“The price is $4.50 a pound at the market right now but in a couple of weeks it will drop to $2.50,” says Mr. Watson, moving quickly through the bare oaks and willows scanning the uneven ground. Where the electric green shoots have emerged and unfurled, the prime picking moment has passed.
But when we find last year’s fronds, lying across the ground next to dry brown lumps – the fern’s woody crown where the green “crosiers” are barely visible – it’s a signal that it’s almost time to pick.
“Oh my gosh, I could fill a garbage bag in an hour in a good place,” says Mr. Watson, his blue eyes twinkling as he kneels to snap off a few tightly wound green shoots.
There’s more competition these days for the gourmet green and it’s not long before we spy two other foragers toting baskets through the woods. The ferns emerge in the same spots each year, especially in the rich alluvial soil of rivers that routinely flood their banks like those in New Brunswick but not all ferns in this forest are edible. It’s only the ostrich fern – matteuccia struthiopteris - that’s safe to eat.
Melvin Nash, a local fiddlehead expert who literally wrote the book on the topic, notes that “fiddlehead greens get their name from the close resemblance to the tuning end of a fiddle.” Here the local Maliseet First Nations called them mososiul while the Acadians know them as tetes de violin fougere. According to Nash, Loyalist settlers learned about these greens from their Native neighbors.
And it’s clear they’ve all long considered these fresh harbingers of spring a local delicacy. While most Canadians consider the fiddlehead a seasonal, east coast treat, the ostrich fern grows wild in a band along both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, from Newfoundland and Vancouver, to Virginia and Oregon. You may find them in your supermarket freezer – Ontario’s NorCliff farms has 300,000 plants on the shores of Lake Erie and sells them fresh or frozen across Canada and the U.S. - but there’s nothing like poking through the forest to find your own dinner.
And here in New Brunswick, the fiddlehead is the unofficial emblem. As soon as the weather’s fine, foragers start setting up with “fiddleheads for sale” on roadsides and in the busy Saturday morning Fredericton Farmer’s Market.
The fiddlehead motif is everywhere. I spy them incised into Flo Greig’s spring-green glazed platters at Botinicals craft store and dangling from pewter earrings at Aitkens Pewter. In the village of Plaster Rock, 200 km north of the city, the town has erected a massive fiddlehead sculpture, The Largest Fiddlehead in the World, and there is a Fiddlehead Festival every year on the weekend after Victoria Day.
Tourism Fredericton even has information online to help you find fiddleheads if you want to head out for a foraging hike on your own.
In Fredericton, chefs like Jason Gower at the Delta Hotel whirl the green coils into creamy soups and sauté them in stir-fries. At BrewBakers restaurant, Chef Sean Clayton cooks them with garlic, shallots and lemon, stacks them in a seasonal lobster and fiddlehead lasagna, and puts up pickled fiddleheads to serve year round.
My favourite dish is Chef Lizzie Stewart’s sublime combination of seafood and fiddleheads, tossed with zucchini ribbons and tender Red Fife pappardelle pasta, in a light creamy sauce, at The Blue Door.
I’ve joined Ms. Stewart in her kitchen, and she explains that the ostrich fern has a natural toxicity that can make you sick if not properly cooked. But she rejects those who err on the side of overcooking these delicate wild greens.
“When people boil them for 15 minutes, that breaks my heart,” says the Maritime native who recommends boiling the fiddleheads for 5 minutes in salted water, or steaming them for 7 minutes, before draining and shocking in ice water to maintain a bright green colour. She also likes to blanch, then vacuum pack and freeze fiddleheads, for enjoying later.
With their unique mineral flavours and earthy aromas, fiddleheads match well with bowls of steamed mussels, and Ms. Stewart says they cook perfectly in the white wine and garlic in the time it takes the bivalves to open. But most locals I talk to in Fredericton eat their fiddleheads straight up – with salt, pepper, butter and a shot of vinegar.
“As soon as I get them, I get excited,” says gallery owner Ingrid Meuller. “I put them in soups – pureed with potatoes and fresh cream.”
“Or just steam them and serve them with butter and good balsamic vinegar.”
That’s the way Austin Watson eats his fiddleheads, too.
“We associate them with fish, a side dish with salmon,” he says, “but I just like ‘em with butter and vinegar.”
In my garden, where I coax a few ferns to life every summer in a shady corner, it seems criminal to be cutting them off like this before they have a chance to unfurl into the big elegant fronds they will become. But as we stroll along the riverbank, bristling with six-inch stems already to tall to harvest for food, it’s safe to say that this whole area will soon be carpeted in leafy ferns.
The fiddlehead harvest lasts only a month, and while many foragers boat down the St. John or Nashwaak rivers to hunt on the little islands that dot the waters, we’re just 10 minutes away from downtown Fredericton. The bike paths that connect every corner of this historic Maritime city, parallel the river almost to Mr. Watson’s door.
“I could get all the fiddleheads I could eat within a walk from my house,” he says.
After we’ve collected a bucketful, Mr. Watson dumps the fiddleheads into a wire basket and begins to wash them in a nearby stream. Standing in the shallow water he dips and swishes his basket through the rushing current until all of the papery brown husks are gone and the tightly coiled crosiers are left, bright green and shiny.
“They’re ready for the table,” he announces proudly.
And so we feast on fiddleheads.
SPRING PASTA WITH FIDDLEHEADS AND SEAFOOD
This is my version of a dish created by chef Lizzie Stewart and one I enjoyed at the former Blue Door in Fredericton. 1 cup fiddleheads, tightly furled heads 12 large prawns, peeled and deveined, or 1 cup cubed lobster meat salt and freshly ground black pepper 1.5 teaspoon garlic puree 12 cherry tomatoes, blanched and peeled or halved ½ cup white wine 1/3 cup whipping cream 8 oz. fresh pappardelle pasta or dried wide, flat noodles, cooked barely al dente (1-2 minutes for fresh pasta) 6 thin ribbons of zucchini handful of baby arugula 2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese pea shoots to garnish Trim any brown spots from the fiddleheads. Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add the fiddleheads. Boil for 3 minutes, then drain and shock in a bowl of ice water. When cool, drain and set aside (they can be vac-packed and frozen at this point). To make zucchini ribbons, used a mandoline (or a vegetable peeler) to take thin, lengthwise slices from a medium zucchini. Set aside. In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of butter over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, add the prawns or lobster and cook quickly for 1 minute, until pink. Season with salt and pepper and stir in garlic and tomatoes. Add the wine to deglaze and cook for a minute, until most of it has evaporated, then stir in the cream. Bring to a simmer and add the reserved fiddleheads, the pasta and zucchini ribbons, tossing together over medium high heat until the zucchini is tender and pasta is heated through, about 3 minutes. Add the arugula and toss to combine. Divide the mixture between two large pasta bowls. Top each serving with Parmesan and fresh pea shoots to garnish. Serves 2.
IF YOU GO:
546 King Street
225 Woodstock Road Fredericton
Brennan’s Bed & Breakfast
146 Waterloo Row
Fredericton Farmers Market
665 George St.
408 Queen St.