Fiddlehead harvesting is a Maine tradition that has its roots in Native American times. Many Mainers can recall the time-honored family tradition of fiddleheadin’ with their parents and grandparents, and it has become a cherished springtime ritual. The tradition of fiddleheads is so rooted in Maine culture that there is even an annual “Fiddlehead Foodie Fest” in May celebrating the delicacy with cooking contests and tastings by well-known local chefs.
Fiddleheads are the coiled tips of young ostrich ferns that grow near brooks, rivers and lakes in Maine during late April, May and early June, depending on when the snow has melted. Because they need to be picked before they unfurl into the large fronds of the fern, Maine’s spring fiddlehead-picking season is short, only four to six weeks long. With their short growing season, this wild delicacy is a highly coveted sign of spring renewal.
Fiddleheads are delicious and have a woodsy taste like asparagus, spinach and mushrooms combined. They are high in vitamins A and C, rich with assorted minerals and low in calories. Whether you pick them yourself, or source them at a local market or farm stand—there are a few things you should know.
- There is an unwritten rule about picking. Only two or three fiddleheads should be taken from each clump, leaving some on the plant to mature and reproduce.
- Pick only enough for you and leave some for the next picker.
- Make sure you have permission from the landowner to pick.
- It’s important to clean and cook fiddleheads properly.
- Rub off the brown papery skin.
- Wash thoroughly several times until the water runs clean.
- Cook them thoroughly—at least 10 minutes. Undercooked or raw fiddleheads can make you sick.
A traditional fiddlehead preparation is to boil and serve with a little butter and salt, but if you are lucky enough to visit Maine during the fiddlehead season, the “locavore” foodie movement in Maine takes on a whole new level of excitement in celebrating all of Maine’s finest springtime treats! With the ever-increasing popularity of farm-to-table cooking and a reliance on local products as much as possible, Maine chefs are taking the fiddlehead tradition to a whole new level. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has published a helpful fiddlehead fact sheet including many recipes, available here.
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