Once considered an outdated, old-fashioned vegetable, fiddleheads are now a highly anticipated seasonal gem prized by locavores and chefs alike. These tightly curled fern tips resemble the decorative scroll on a violin and deliver a distinct, earthy taste with hints of asparagus, artichoke, green beans and nuts. Whether you head to the woods or a farmer’s market, fiddleheads are a delicious and versatile way to celebrate the arrival of spring.
How to harvest
In recent years, fiddleheads have become so popular, enthusiastic amateurs have over-harvested areas of the forest floors and riverbeds where these wild ferns grow. If you want to pick fiddleheads in the wild, go with an expert forager who knows the fern, geography and water sources. Although the woodland might look pristine, some wild fiddleheads are contaminated by runoff from nearby highways. Not only can inexperienced foragers pick the wrong fern, which can make them sick, improper harvesting techniques can destroy next year’s fern population. To find a forager, ask a fiddlehead source at your local farmer’s market.
Got a jungle of ferns in your garden? Be sure you know what grows outside your own back door before you pick. Only the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is edible.
If you are lucky enough to have responsible, non-polluted access to ostrich ferns, bring along gloves. Your hands will need protection from harvest-induced bruises and copious amounts of dirt. Pick in the early morning and harvest only tightly curled heads. Snap the head off by hand, about one to two inches above the ground. Harvest no more than three fiddleheads from a cluster, being careful not to damage the remaining heads. If you strip or uproot a cluster, the fern won’t grow back.
Can’t pick your own? No problem. The local farmer’s market will have fresh fiddleheads in season, as will most major grocery stores. Regardless of your source, look for tightly curled heads that are plump and bright green. Avoid any with dark centres since this is a sign they’re old.