April 29, 2010

Meredith Goad: Fiddlehead fever

The high (and very short) season for the delicate ferns is upon us.

Jeffrey Savage, executive chef of On the Marsh Bistro in Kennebunk, makes his "Spring Peekytoe Crab Bake with Morels, Fiddleheads, Ramps and Semolina Pudding."

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

All over southern Maine, long-awaited fiddleheads are starting to turn up on restaurant menus, in local markets and at roadside stands.

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Jeffrey Savage, executive chef at On the Marsh Bistro in Kennebunk, arranges fiddleheads in his Spring Peekytoe Crab Bake appetizer.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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The appearance of fiddleheads in markets is a sure sign of spring.

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As Mainers become more enamored of local foods, products such as fiddleheads are soaring in popularity. Add a recession to the mix, and that means more people are picking them, both for personal use and to make money selling them to restaurants, markets and at roadside stands.

The question is whether this rise in consumption will be sustainable.

David Fuller, a researcher at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Farmington, wondered what the effect would be of "clearcutting" certain areas of their fiddleheads. Is it possible fiddleheads could go the way of elvers and sea urchins, two foods that experienced a big boom and crash when the public suddenly developed a ravenous appetite for them?

To find out, he set aside a group of control plants, then harvested two other sets of plants. In one harvested area, Fuller picked just half of the plants that came up in the spring. In the other, he picked every last fiddlehead that peeked up from the soil.

"The plants where I picked all of them, half of those plants are dead now," Fuller said. "They don't exist anymore. They stopped coming up. So I'm leaning toward the recommendation of just picking half of the fiddleheads that come up in a group."

Fuller also suggests that anyone who wants to go out picking fiddleheads should ask the landowner's permission first.

"That bit of advice is not going to be met with great enthusiasm," he said, " but if you don't ask for permission and people start posting the land, that's a problem. If you're respectful of the resource and ask for permission, then you're probably good to go back picking again."



FOR INFORMATION on freezing fiddleheads and recipes for pickling them, go to


 Last year, Angelo D'Ambrosio of Elliottsville Township was talking with some of his friends about eating fiddleheads.

"A lot of them laughed," he said. "They thought it was a joke, that people eat ferns."

So D'Ambrosio decided to show the ostrich fern a little respect by creating a Facebook fan page for fiddleheads. In only a month, the page called "Fiddleheads (A Wild Delicacy of Maine and the Northeast)" has attracted more than 5,000 fans.

Fans of the page share information about when fiddleheads come up in their area, where they are being sold, and their favorite recipes.

"They're sharing information, but they're not giving out where they're picking them," D'Ambrosio said. "Some of them say, 'If I tell ya, then I'd have to kill ya.' Those are family secrets that have been passed down for generations, where they go and pick them."

It's not just Mainers who are logging on. D'Ambrosio says there are fans from all over the country -- even Guam. Fans tell stories about how they picked fiddleheads with their families when they were young.

"There's a woman right now from West Virginia that just went back to Orono for vacation to pick fiddleheads," D'Ambrosio said. "It's a tradition for a lot of people, and brings back a lot of memories."

To view the fiddlehead fan page, go to:

– Meredith Goad

Their appearance is as sure a sign of spring as greening lawns and daffodils bobbing their yellow heads in the breeze.

Fiddleheads are the coiled fronds of the ostrich fern that typically grow on the flood plains of Maine rivers. Their delicate tendrils, covered in papery brown scales, begin emerging from the soil in April. mid-May, the fleeting season is over, except for far northern Maine.

This year, the unusually warm weather has tinkered with the fiddlehead season a bit.

"We're a couple of weeks ahead of schedule up here," says David Fuller, a fiddlehead researcher at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Farmington.

In southern Maine, chefs are capturing the essence of the season in the subtle earthy taste and tender-crisp texture of the fiddlehead, often coupling it with the garlicky goodness of spring ramps.

Home cooks are scooping up fiddleheads at places like the Rosemont Markets in Portland and Yarmouth. Whole Foods Market in Portland hopes to have them in this week, and the Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth expects to be selling them when the farm store opens on May 5.

Roadside stands are popping up in southern Maine towns such as Wells and communities around Sebago Lake, selling the New England delicacies for $2 to $4 a pound.

Once cleaned of their brown covering, fiddleheads are simple to prepare and versatile. They turn up in salads, appetizers, soups and risottos on local menus. They are sauteed in butter, flavored with a little lemon and maybe some shallots, and served with fish. And they can be pickled so they will stretch all through the summer.

"Mainers mostly have theirs with butter and a little vinegar," said Angelo D'Ambrosio of Elliottsville Township, a fiddlehead fan who started a Facebook page where people are sharing recipes and tips on where to find the plants. "They'll have them with some brook trout."

At Evangeline last week, Chef Erik Desjarlais created a soupe de printemps that featured fiddleheads, carrots, fennel, celery branch and La Quercia ham swimming in a crystal-clear vegetable consomme. It tasted like spring in a bowl.

He's also done a fiddlehead risotto, and is challenging himself to offer something new almost every day during fiddlehead season. Under consideration are fiddlehead poppers -- nuggets of fiddleheads wrapped in ham and fried -- and maybe something with wild escargot freshly arrived from France.

"The ideal thing is when the morels come at the same time, and you can do morels and fiddleheads and ramps on the same plate with a little bit of brown butter, a little bit of bacon," Desjarlais said. "I mean, that's it right there. You don't need much else."

At On the Marsh Bistro in Kennebunk, Executive Chef Jeffrey Savage is making a Spring Peekytoe Crab Bake appetizer with morels, fiddleheads, ramps and seminola pudding. He serves the dish bubbling hot from the oven with housemade crostini.

Fiddleheads, says Savage, are "almost too simple to work with."

"The best way to serve some types of food is the simplest," he said.

Savage likes serving them as a side dish, sauteed with a little garlic, white wine, butter and red pepper flakes "so you can really appreciate what it is for itself. It needs salt. It needs pepper. It needs a little flavor, a little attention, but it doesn't need much."

Fresh fiddleheads are a great source of fiber, Vitamin A and (at least until they're cooked), Vitamin C. Many people say they taste a little like asparagus.

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Additional Photos

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At On the Marsh Bistro in Kennebunk, Executive Chef Jeffrey Savage makes a Spring Peekytoe Crab Bake with morels, fiddleheads, ramps and seminola pudding.

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Chef/owner Erik Desjarlais puts the finishing touches on his Soupe de Printemps at Evangeline in Portland.

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Fresh seasonal flavors and colors abound in the Soupe de Printemps created by Evangeline Chef Erik Desjarlais. "A little bitter, (but) bitter in a good way," says Desjarlais to describe fiddleheads' distinctive taste.

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Chef Erik Desjarlais of Evangeline in Portland features fiddleheads and spring ramps in his Soupe de Printemps.


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