To a classical violinist, a fiddle and a violin are very different instruments. A violin is for Beethoven and Brahms, not jigs and reels. But as a harbinger of spring in North America, the curlicue tail of the foraged ostrich fern by any other name would sound as sweet.
And it does just that in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where the high society têtes de violons appear on every locavore restaurant menu over the approximately three-week season—in sweet pea risotto; with Nordic shrimp, morels and poached eggs; or as at Montréal top restaurant, Toqué!, with duck breast and heart, blue foot mushrooms, and Madeira sauce.
Fiddleheads go back to pre-colonial times. To Native Americans, the edible shoots of the ostrich fern that grow on river bottoms and in hardwood forests in Vermont, New Hampshire, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Quebec were medicinal. Now they’re a culinary delicacy. Less than a decade ago, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find fiddleheads at a local market. But thanks to foraged foods being all the rage, they’ve become a gastronomic wunderkind.
At Montréal’s Jean-Talon Market, the owner of Les Jardins Sauvages, François Brouillard, can’t forage enough of them. He tells ravenous customers to not eat them raw because of their potential carcinogenic properties and bacteria. But the addictively slippery-slimy texture and sweet flavor that falls somewhere between asparagus, artichoke and broccoli encourages gastronomes to learn to prepare them properly.
HOW TO PREPARE FIDDLEHEADS
Wash them carefully, rubbing with your hands, then trim the bottom stems that turn brown (it’s not unsafe, but the high iron content causes the fern to discolor). Boil or blanch them for at least 2 minutes (the carcinogens are water soluble and are denatured by cooking) and serve with lemon juice and zest.
Most vendors at Montréal’s public markets, grocery stores, and even urban rooftop garden, Lufa Farms, source their fiddleheads from farms rather than foraging wild ferns, the major producer being NorCliff, a company that owns farms and partners with others between Maine and the Ottawa Valley. Lufa Farms encourages the recipients of their local food baskets to cook the ferns for 12-15 minutes—a safety precaution and liability issue more than a necessity. Many play it safe by double cooking the fern: first blanching and then adding them to a vegetable sauté or a simmering pasta sauce in the last minute or two of cooking.
Now fiddleheads are so popular that over-harvesting is a threat. The Quebec Ministry for Sustainable Development, Environment, and the Fight Against Climate Change, the Ostrich fern was named a species at risk in 2005 from over-harvesting for culinary and horticultural purposes. Brouillard says that for a sustainable harvest, foragers must only pick a quarter of the fiddleheads from a given plant. This allows the plant to regenerate for the next year, which Brouillard would know since his family has been picking fiddleheads from the same areas for over 70 years. While you might think that identifying them would be simple thanks to their fiddle scroll tips, what’s actually easy is mistaking them for non-edible ferns. Fortunately, Brouillard offers classes to help foragers identify the real thing.
WHAT YOU DIDN'T KNOW
Often thought to be unique to North America, various types of edible ferns are native to Asia and even New Zealand. The Australian fern, Cyathea cooperi, was a primary food source of the Maori before sweet potato and corn were introduced to the island country. In Japan, expensive warabi is the key ingredient in warabi mochi, a glutinous dessert (and is often replaced by less expensive rice flour or tapioca) . In Indonesia, you can find them in gulai pakis, a soup of fiddleheads, coconut milk, lemongrass and turmeric. In India you’ll find fiddlehead curry. And in Korea, a type of fern called gosari is popular for bibimbap.
Besides plates of risotto and duck hearts, other Montreal restaurants are getting creative with the fern. They’re sautéed with mushrooms and accompany melt-in-your-mouth veal cheeks at Au Cinquième Péché, and veal filet at Pullman Wine Bar. But the fiddlehead first prize goes to the exclusive Le Club Chasse et Pêche where the ferns drown happily in the juices of suckling pig with white turnips, marrow, and cherries.