Fiddleheads were selling at Eataly, a frenetic and extravagant all-things Italian market on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, for $28 a pound this week. When Kittery Point resident Mollie Sanders craves them, she steps out her back door. A patch of fiddleheads planted by her great-grandmother, Lois Hoyt, thrives in a marshy, unmanicured area of the yard. Sanders matter-of-factly snaps off as many of the tightly coiled ferns as she needs for dinner, perhaps Fiddlehead and Pancetta Pasta.

“For us it’s a normal thing,” she said. “We expect them in May, and we enjoy them. My family has eaten them for generations.”

Lois and her husband, Foster W. Hoyt, bought the house in the 1940s (Sanders purchased it from the estate some 15 years ago). Lois transplanted the ferns from elsewhere in the 1950s –at least that’s what Sanders has always heard. She thought the plants originated in Aroostook County, where her great-grandmother grew up, or in Vermont, where she spent a lot of time. Sanders double-checked with her grandmother last week.

After that conversation, she reported back: “I am not supposed to tell you where they came from.”

Um, why not?

“I’m not sure,” she said. Her grandmother told her, “You just can’t tell. It’s not a good idea.”

Each spring, Sanders harvests roughly 30 pounds of fiddleheads. Some she gives away. Some she sells at her family’s market, Sanders Fish Market, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The rest she and her family eat. She likes them steamed and drizzled with reduced balsamic syrup. Her mother likes to roast them. “You can blanche them and freeze them, but they get really mushy,” Sanders said, “and I know a lot of people pickle them, and that’s fine, it’s just not my favorite thing. I tend to enjoy them while we have them in the spring.

“One of my children’s teachers told me she was convinced they caused cancer,” Sanders added. “I told her my great-grandmother ate these her entire life and died of a stroke. In her 90s.”

Fiddlehead and Pancetta Pasta

Sanders uses mafaldine pasta, which has ribbon-shaped strands, but says fettuccine is a fine substitute.
Serves 4
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 ounces pancetta, diced
2 tablespoons slivered shallots
2 cloves fresh garlic, slivered
1 pound fresh fiddleheads, washed and trimmed
½ cup dry white wine
1½ cups chicken stock
3 fresh thyme sprigs
1 pound fresh pasta, cooked al dente
½ cup heavy cream
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. When the oil is shimmering, add the pancetta and sauté over medium high heat until nicely browned. Turn the heat down to medium and add the shallots. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add garlic and continue to cook for another minute or two.
Add the fiddleheads and give them a good toss in the pan.
Pour in the wine and chicken stock, drop in the thyme sprigs. Allow the mixture to simmer gently until the liquid is slightly reduced and the fiddleheads are just tender to the bite.
Meanwhile, cook the fresh pasta in the boiling water according to package instructions until al dente, usually just 3 minutes or so.
Finish the sauce with heavy cream and allow to just heat through without letting it bubble. Serve immediately over fresh pasta. Top each portion with cheese.

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