Just as Vidalia, Georgia, has laid claim to a particular variety of onions and the town of Hatch, New Mexico, has branded its chile peppers – both with an eye to increasing demand – Northern Girl, a food processing company in Aroostook County, is launching a program to give brand identity to the state’s iconic fiddleheads.
“We think of them as this really unique product of Maine, but the reality is they have no identity at all when they reach the customer,” said Marada Cook, Northern Girl’s owner.
So she and her team are taking the thousands of fiddleheads that come to their warehouse in 10-pound bags and are repackaging them in a way that tells buyers exactly where the fiddleheads were foraged. Northern Girl’s clam shell packages include a lot code that the buyer can look up on a map on the Northern Girl website to learn which waterway their fiddleheads came from and read about the headwaters, tributaries, rivers and streams that are part of the waterway. (Fiddleheads, the coiled fronds of the ostrich fern, typically grow on the flood plains of Maine rivers, emerging from the soil along stream banks and other wet areas in April and May.)
Click on Lot No. 5, for example, and a red star shows up on the map at Greenlaw Stream. The watershed is shaded in green. The text reads: “Starting up near Greenlaw Pond, Greenlaw Stream ranges through unnamed townships and past Six Mile Checkpoint before joining the Machias River and eventually forging into the Aroostook River. It crosses a lot of ground and sees more moose than people.”
“Part of the story of fiddleheads is the mystique of where they come from and the fact that they’re foraged,” Cook said.
The effort isn’t about unique tastes, as say, the terroir of wine affecting its taste. Fiddleheads taste the same wherever they grow, she said. And don’t worry, fiddlehead foragers: The folks at Northern Girl are not giving away your top-secret picking locations.
Beyond giving this wild food a sense of place and linking it to Maine’s food culture, Cook hopes customers will pay a premium for the “mystique” of these packaged fiddleheads. The 5-ounce package retails for $4.99, which works out to about $16 a pound; loose fiddleheads this spring have been selling in Portland in many markets for $6.99 a pound.
Cook likes that she can include cooking instructions on the package. While chefs argue that recommended cooking times (15 minutes at a boil or 10 to 12 minutes steaming) can ruin the taste and texture of the ferns, health officials insist that cooking them properly is the only way to avoid getting sick. “It’s a high-surface-area food that grows in the wilderness,” Cook said. “It can harbor a lot of bacteria.”
Eventually, she’d like to try something similar with potatoes, diced beets and other Maine produce, using the interactive online map to trace the products back to the farms where they were grown.
The packaged fiddleheads will be rolling out in force this week, and the shipping season should last through June 10, Cook said. Find them at Whole Foods in Portland, The Farm Stand in South Portland, the Belfast Co-op, the Good Tern Natural Foods Store in Rockland and Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta.
Fiddleheads, Cook said, are “certainly special. A part of it is that the season is so fleeting. You really want to celebrate them when you have them.”