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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

"I don't think it tastes like asparagus as much as the texture and color is like asparagus," Savage said. "I think the flavor is actually closer to spinach."

Justin Rowe, the new executive chef at the Chebeague Island Inn, thinks they have more of a nutty quality.

"Everybody says asparagus," Rowe said. "I think the only thing that they have in common with asparagus is they have that crunch. But to me, sauteeing just lightly brings out somewhat of a nutty quality they're great sauteed with just a little bit of garlic. They're great with mushrooms as well."

Desjarlais has heard the flavor of fiddleheads compared to cut grass, but he thinks people are simply trying to describe that natural earthiness that comes from the landscape in which they grow.

"They're usually in a river bank area, so you're going to have the musty thing happening," Desjarlais said. "A little bitter, (but) bitter in a good way. Depending on how mature they are, they're going to be sweeter when they're smaller."

No matter how you describe it, it is the taste of spring.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:


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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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