“It often involves a ride in a canoe to get to the best picking grounds.”
Spring in Canada is a much-welcomed season for obvious reasons. It brings more daylight, warmer temperatures and the end of cabin fever. It’s also the time to pull out recipes for fresh, seasonal produce like asparagus, rhubarb and spinach. For those Canadians who live in the East, spring also means fiddlehead season. Whether you’re buying them at your local supermarket, farmer’s market, or have a secret family harvesting location, these earthy, nutty greens scream spring.
Eating fiddleheads is nothing new. Canada’s Indigenous peoples have enjoyed this seasonal delicacy for centuries. In New Brunswick especially, fiddleheads are also an important cultural symbol, often symbolized in artwork. For instance, in Plaster Rock, where an annual Fiddlehead Festival is hosted every July, there is a 24-foot tall wooden sculpture of a cluster of fiddleheads.
One day of sunshine can turn an empty river bank into one that’s full of ostrich ferns ready to be harvested.”Paula Lentz, artisanal chef at Café Flora in Edmunston, NB
Fiddleheads are the beginnings of an ostrich fern—picked just as they start to curl one to two inches out of the ground in the spring. They like moist, wet growing conditions and still mostly grow only in the wild.
“All you need is a bucket and a pair of rubber boots, and almost anyone can secure themselves a great feed of fiddleheads,” says Paula Lentz, artisanal chef at Café Flora, the restaurant at the New Brunswick Botanical Garden in Edmundston, NB. “It often involves a ride in a canoe to get to the best picking grounds or hiking through brush to reach the riverbeds. One day of sunshine can turn an empty river bank into one that’s full of ostrich ferns ready to be harvested.”
Fiddleheads are filled with vitamins A and C, micronutrients like iron and potassium and high in fibre. Research has also shown that they are filled with antioxidants. They are most tender and flavourful when the head is still tightly coiled. Otherwise, the texture becomes woody and they start to taste bitter. Depending on the season and location, the picking season can be anywhere from late March to early June.
In the past 20 years, with the eat-local “terroir” food movement, dining on freshly foraged food is increasingly popular. “You would have eaten fiddleheads in the 50s and way before, but you would probably harvest and pickle them to eat them all year round,” says Michel Savoie, chef-owner of Les Brumes du Coude in Moncton. “Today in the restaurant we’re more about celebrating seasonal foods, like ‘the fiddleheads are coming out, the asparagus is coming out, let’s use them’.”
“Fiddleheads can be sautéed with butter and just a little flash of fresh garlic at the end” continues Savoie. “Or you can do an infused cream that has been steeped with some aromatics, and then you cook the fiddleheads and use just a little splash of the cream which is already reduced. My personal favourite is the fiddleheads mixed with a hodge-podge of greens, and a dash of the cream. Plated simply, like the old-fashioned green beans, with just a bit of butter, and salt and pepper on top is also a great way to eat them.”
Aside from eating fiddleheads fresh, people also freeze, pickle or can them. For the past 10 years, Cafe Flora has purchased hundreds of pounds of these little green jewels from a man in Baker Brook.
“We purchase them fresh and then blanch and freeze them for use throughout the summer,” says Lentz. “At Café Flora, we feature fiddleheads on our menu in several different ways. There’s a beautiful velvety soup that people enjoy. But our most popular fiddlehead dish is our sauteed fiddleheads egg benedict with Atlantic smoked salmon served on a homemade buttery biscuit. It really is sinfully delicious! Personally, I like them tender, crisp, served hot with butter and white vinegar, and seasoned with salt and pepper, or added to salads and stir fries.”
Whichever way you eat them, fiddleheads are like a welcome taste of Canadian spring.
Tips for Foraging and Cooking Fiddleheads
- Its deep-green colour makes the ostrich fern distinguishable, but other types of ferns can be toxic, so if you’re not comfortable identifying your own fiddleheads, find a local expert to teach you.
- You have to brush and rinse fiddleheads a few times so you can get rid of traces of the brown powdery chafe which covers them. Then you must also boil, blanch or steam them for at least 10 to 15 minutes to get the impurities out and to prevent any food-borne illness.
You can visit the New Brunswick Tourism website to learn more about picking and cooking your own fiddleheads.
Kate Robertson is a freelance journalist living in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia. She specializes in travel, food, wellness and outdoor adventure writing. She’s contributed to publications like Canadian Traveller, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Zagat Stories. You can follow Kate on Instagram @kateflysolo101 and on Twitter @kateflyingsolo, or check out her work at her website http://www.katerobertson.ca.
All photos courtesy: Café Flora.