As a small child, Monroe resident Monty Barrett, who writes under the pen name L.E. Barrett, ate fiddleheads each spring. More than a tasty side dish, the young ferns symbolized the start of spring, an awakening of sorts.
“Fiddleheads are sort of iconic. They are symbolic of the beginning of summer and spring,” Barrett said.
Now, decades later, after moving back to Maine from years of living in Colorado, Barrett has fiddleheads on the brain once more.
His 5-acre property backs up to Marsh Stream and teems with the tightly curled greens each spring. But it wasn’t until he met his 90-year-old neighbor who had been harvesting fiddleheads from Barrett’s property for more than 50 years that he wanted to do more than boil a few handfuls to eat each year.
“She said to me, ‘Most people only know a couple recipes, but I know dozens.’ So that whole night I ruminated the idea of knowing dozens, because at the time I only knew one,” Barrett said.
What has happened since then is nothing short of mania — fiddlemania, that is.
Barrett and his friend since adolescence, Lin Diket, recently published a book called “Fiddlemainia: Maine’s Organic Edible Fern,” which includes 125 recipes using fiddleheads. The book has been so well-received they already have written a second called “The Blueberry Coast” due out in June and are working on a third called “The Dandelion Conspiracy” and a fourth called “The Wild Harvest.”
Barrett said he hopes the books will show people fiddleheads and other wild edibles can be part of a well-balanced diet.
“It gets away from the novelty and becomes more about incorporating wild foods into your overall diet. There’s fiddlehead ice cream, fiddlehead pizza, raviolis, fiddlehead pie,” he said.
A cultural love
The book already has gained quite a following, not unlike that of the small green ferns.
“Our Fiddlemainia Facebook site is getting emails from people all over the country. … Fiddlehead fans are much like the Red Sox nation,” Barrett said. Red Sox fans, for example, live in all different parts of the country but still tune in to games or purchase and wear Red Sox gear. Similarly, fiddlehead fans also live throughout the U.S., where fiddleheads may not grow but will purchase them from stores such as Whole Foods and other grocery stores.
In addition to the book’s Facebook page, several online groups also exist for fans to talk about everything from where to find fiddleheads to how to prepare them.
The sometimes cult-like fiddlehead enthusiasm in Maine may have something to do with the green’s prevalence in cultures where they commonly are found.
According to a publication by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, fiddleheads are an important part of the state’s culture and heritage. The double-curve motif sometimes seen on Wabanaki artwork resembles a fiddlehead, and many Mainers rely on the extra cash they earn by harvesting and selling the ferns at roadside stands.
David Fuller, an agriculture and non-timber forest products extension professional with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Franklin County, said fiddleheads have also been a part of Maine cuisine for as long as people have lived here.
“Fiddleheads herald spring. This is the earliest green, and it’s a big part of our culture,” Fuller said.
Preparation is key
But the season is short and proper cooking is key.
The slightly bitter greens can be found throughout Maine but at this point in the spring will be most concentrated in northern areas. Fiddleheads emerge in the spring, usually in late April and early to mid-May. They grow quickly — sometimes several inches per day — so the harvest season is short once they appear.
They are packed with nutrients, including omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, iron and fiber. However, Fuller said he wasn’t sure if or how cooking them changes their nutritional content. He hopes to study that in the coming years because the ferns must be boiled or steamed before eating.
Fuller recommends foragers look for tightly coiled ferns that are only 1 or 2 inches tall. To avoid overharvesting, he also recommends cutting 50 percent or less of the plants found, especially if you’re in a public area where more people may come to harvest after you.
Preparation is key to avoiding food-borne related illnesses. Fiddleheads should be rinsed in cold water and rubbed until the brown skins fall off. They should then be boiled for at least 15 minutes or steamed for 10 to 12 minutes before eating or incorporating into recipes, Fuller said.
Look for ostrich ferns, which can be identified by a groove down the stem and brown casing on the outside near the base of the plant. Also, if you don’t own the property, seek permission before picking.
“You have to remember that this is a wild food, but that’s also what is so cool about it,” Fuller said.