Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fiddling around the woods for a real Maine secret - By Harrison Wood

A dilemma, do I get out my favorite Sage reel and pole and head straight for my usual secret spot up on the Sebago with my most precious hand-tied Magog fly, a sure winner when it comes to catching local spring salmon or do I take advantage of the early season and go fiddling for a precious spring green in places no one knows about? What a dilemma, fresh salmon or fresh fiddleheads. I know the fish are biting, yet the question remains, can we still find some of the local delicacy, the unfurled fiddleheads? Did anyone find my secret stash?

Maine has a lot of secrets, one of which is the succulent spring fiddleheads; the unfurled fronds of young ferns that are harvested as a precious spring green. What are fiddleheads? Some people use the unfurled fronds of the lady ferns, the bracken ferns, and for some the cinnamon ferns, but the real Maine fiddlehead connoisseurs, the real old timers use the fronds of only one, the bold ostrich fern.

When I first came to Maine some twenty years ago as a flatlander and I first heard about fiddleheads my response was typical. You eat what? Yet now looking back I can only say thank you to whoever turned me onto this precious, tasty right of spring. Now it wouldn't be spring without the treasure of the fiddleheads. 

Heading for their damp, composty hideouts Fiddleheads, the unfurled new leaves still tightly coiled are harvested simply by cutting the tender individual fronds in early spring before they fully uncoil. So as not to damage the individual adult ferns only about three fiddles are harvested from each individual plant. This is where some people get greedy and ruin the plants. I only take two. It is important not to overdue the slicing because each mature plant only produces seven new fronds each season that ultimately turn into leaves. Over picking will easily kill the plants.

Though they are a real Maine thing, eating fiddleheads isn't new, they have been part of the French diet sense the middle ages.

More to the point, when the first settlers arrived in the new world it was the Native Americans that first introduced the new arrivals too many things, including the bold ostrich fern.

Growing wild in deep, rich, aged, wet organic soils once found these treasures of the shade are often held as secrets shared with only a precious few. Cooked typically steamed or boiled before being eaten hot either with a simply dollop of butter, or as I now do with a touch of Parmesan or sometimes a warm coating of hollandaise sauce.

For some the slight bitterness can be a turn off, should you be a first timer and it bothers you, a great way to compete with the distinctive taste, a cross between fresh spring asparagus and summer green beans is to boil them twice with a change of water between boilings. Removing the water removes the tannins. For most Mainers, cooking is simply laying a fresh washed layer in a steamer once and steam just until el dante. Done.

Rich in various vitamins and minerals, their real gift beyond taste is the high amount of antioxidants and dietary fiber. Like anything else picked, wild fiddleheads should be washed first just to remove any fine soil grains before cooking. 

Fiddlehead carbonara. Oh I can taste it now. A truly versatile green with so many ways to be used, in spring salads, or maybe as a green in a potato soup, or simply as a green by themselves, don't be afraid to experiment.

So if you haven't yet tried fiddleheads and don't really want to tramp through the damp woods, watch for them in the market this spring and give them a try. Before you know it you may even be pickling some to share with others. I can taste them now. The salmon in the Sebago will just have to wait a bit longer. Fiddleheads come first.

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