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Fiddleheads: Tasty Forest Secrets

Sam Evans-Brown

Fiddleheads are the whimsical, tightly coiled spiral of fern sprouts that push their way up from under the layers of winter debris on the forest floor. They are also a regional and seasonal delicacy, and their season is incredibly short. In some Southern parts of the state, it may already be over. For any given fiddlehead patch, it can last as little as a week and a half.

That means for those who harvest the sprouts, fiddlehead patches are closely guarded secrets.

Even just finding fiddleheads in stores can be tough. But at the Concord Coop, an independent grocery store in Concord, a basket of the vibrant green sprouts sat in the vegetable cooler this week.

“It’s why I’m here today, because I thought that the coop would have fiddleheads,” says Ruth Brown, a Concord resident.

While it takes some patience and attention to catch fiddleheads in stores, Brown says, that’s still much easier than foraging for them in the wild. She’s gone foraging “with a friend who knew what he was doing, but other than that not totally on my own,” she explains laughing, “It’s a deep, dark secret where they are.”

Finding the Ferns

There are lots of ferns out there, but eat most species and you’re likely to regret it the next day. Fiddleheads in stores are from Ostrich Ferns, which are found in forests along the flood plains of rivers.

Recently George Rawlings, a cabinetmaker from Keene, took me to his personal fiddlehead patch. I’m sworn to secrecy as to where, but suffice it to say the Connecticut River Valley has historically been a pretty fern-y zone.

“These, I would pick two of those and leave the rest,” Rawlings explains as he plucks a few sprouts.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
These ferns are already a little far past the stage where they should be picked, highlighting the need to catch them at just the right stage

Ostrich Ferns punch out from under last year’s leaves in a tight fist of fiddleheads, called a crown. It’s dense enough to trip over. You pick them when they’re young and tender, and drop them into your waiting bucket. Rawlings always leave some ferns behind on each crown, so that there will be fiddleheads again next year.

There are lots of other ferns sprinkled about too, one of which he points out. Holding up a fiddlehead covered with white fuzz, Rawlings notes that this is not an edible fern. “I wouldn’t eat anything with the fuzz on it,” he grimaces, “Kind of like chewing on a mitten.”

The ostrich fern is identifiable by a brown, papery skin that covers its fiddlehead, like an onion skin.

For Rawlings – a Vietnam vet, who forages for all kinds of edible plants – being out in the woods is a bit like therapy. And finding a mother-lode, is his favorite part. “Part of the whole experience is going out and trying to find this stuff,” he says getting excited as he remembers past scores, “That’s like a pay-day. It’s like ‘oh this is awesome!’ You get really excited.”

But it requires a certain degree of adventurousness. After picking a few sprouts from what Rawlings calls the “early side” of a small brook, he eyes my recording gear and the small span of running water between us and the more fruitful “late side.”

You can jump that can’t you?It’s remarkable to think when you see baskets of fiddleheads in grocery stores, that every single spiral that you buy has been harvested in this way: jumping over streams, bucket in hand.

Back In the Kitchen

The chef at the Concord Coop, Scott Jones, says the suppliers they buy from have a whole network of foragers.

“Some of these guys are pretty serious about it. They will go all the way from Delaware up to Maine. They’re following the spring as it slowly comes north.”

Old-school, untroubled New Englanders will eat fiddleheads raw. That’s not recommended because the 

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Nestled in among the standard produce in the grocery store, the curious coils of fiddleheads can't help but seem out of place

  sprouts could bring bacteria from the forest with them that can make you sick. Jones says at the very least the sprouts should be boiled for a minute or two, which has the added benefit of making them a little less fiberous.

“I’ve prepared them with green beans and wax beans and done like a take on a three-bean-salad,” Jones says. Or sometimes he’ll “do them with like a Dijon style vinaigrette, you know with some roasted red peppers. They go great like that, but they are very earthy to the taste.”

Summer is coming on fast, and soon those Ostrich Ferns will be up to your waist, their tasty fiddlehead unfurled to catch the sun. So get your bucket, or your grocery bag and get them while they last.