Around Peterborough, we have stopped harvesting fiddleheads all together as we have watched their population decline due to over-harvesting and their increase in popularity. Here however, in the north-eastern woods of Lanark County, Ontario, we were told by the landowners that this delicious, tender spring food runs rampant on their property.
We ventured into the woods slathered in our handmade catnip bug repellent and suited up in bug net jackets to protect us from black flies and ticks. The rich loamy smell of the swamp felt good in our lungs and we exclaimed in amazement as we came across an abundant crop of ostrich fern fiddleheads slowly unfurling.
When foraging, we always consider sustainability, keeping the intention to enhance the ecosystem whenever possible and never to hinder it. We harvested the larger juicy looking tendrils, leaving smaller ones that may have been from younger plants. We also made sure to take only two out of five or six tendrils to ensure that we didn't damage the plant too much and that it had enough energy to regenerate itself for future years. We also made sure to harvest close to the stalk, many people only harvest the top fiddles, but the stalks are equally if not more delicious and provide even more bounty to your harvest as long as the tops are still tightly wound.
We distinguished the ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) from some poisonous relatives growing alongside by noticing their relatively larger size, papery scales (similar to onions skins), the deep grooves on their stalks and the brown feather-like fronds that grow from the same raised rootstock (for a complete description of Ostrich Ferns see Samuel Thayer’s excellent book The Forager’s Harvest).
The above two photos are NOT ostrich ferns. Learn to distinguish ostrich ferns from other poisonous look-alikes before harvesting and consuming them on your own.
Courtney carries her harvested bounty in her sun hat.
We cleaned the fiddleheads by removing the papery scales and soaking them in cold water for an hour. After rinsing several times, we steamed them for five minutes until they changed to a lighter, pale green.
We fried some wild leeks in butter and a bit of salt in a cast iron skillet and added the fiddleheads, frying them for another few minutes until tender. We added salt, pepper and lemon to taste. Delicious!