They’ve been appearing on menus from Portland to the St. John Valley. From omelets to pizzas and more, chefs are taking full advantage of the blink-and-you-miss-it fiddlehead ferns season. The wild edible ostrich fern green, which can be sauteed, deep fried and so much more, is being worked into a variety of appetizers and main dishes.
Prized for their delicate flavor, fiddleheads are in season and found along the banks of rivers, streams and brooks from late April to early June. And, while nearly all ferns do have a “fiddlehead,” according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, it’s those of the ostrich fern variety — scientifically known as Matteuccia struthiopteris — that are the most prized.
“They are available for such a short time [and] are such a delicacy,” said Melissa Chaiken, chef and co-owner of The Fiddlehead Restaurant in Bangor. “You really want to just taste it on its own [and] never want it to get overpowered because it is such a light an awesome vegetable.”
Often compared in flavor to asparagus or spinach, at The Fiddlehead, Chaiken does not do much with the wild green, but what she does kicks it up a notch from a simple edible fern.
“I always serve them as simply as possible as a side dish so you can taste what they really are like,” she said. “A lot of people are like, ‘my mom would boil the hell out of them,’ but here we saute them in butter and serve with a splash of champagne vinegar.”
A few weeks ago for University of Maine graduation weekend, Chaiken combined sauteed fiddleheads with fresh mozzarella cheese, heirloom tomatoes and 18-year-old balsamic vinegar.
“They are a really popular item on our menu,” she said.
At Bangor’s Bagel Central, the fiddleheads are for breakfast in a special omelette served with cheese and anything else the customer wants.
“We are selling like 50 a day,” said prep cook Devin Call. “People like them a lot.”
Up in Aroostook County, a region where fiddleheads are as much a part of spring as the arrival of black flies, Chef Joseph Gervais at the Northern Maine Brewing Company is offering an appetizer of beer-battered fried fiddleheads served with a maple dijon dipping sauce.
“I like to fry stuff,” Gervais said with a laugh. “The guys really mess with me about that [and] we fry some really strange stuff because we have a really good beer batter, so why not?”
Some things — like deviled eggs — do not lend themselves to the deep fryer, Gervais said. But the fiddleheads hold up well and retain their sweet, delicate flavor.
“It works really well,” he said. “Everyone around here steams or boils them, but this brings another light to them and it’s going over really well and has really taken off [and] this winter I hope to pickle a bunch of them and serve them deep fried.”
Fiddleheads are being served deep fried around the state, including as an appetizer down at the Sunday River Brewing Company.
When it comes to encasing the fiddleheads in batter or dough, Becky Lawn, owner of The Mooseshack in Fort Kent, opted to make the greens part of her seasonal fiddlehead calzone with cheese, bacon and an alfredo dipping sauce.
Down the river in Grand Isle Bruce Bouley and his fiancee Heather Salsbury, co-owners of the Grand Isle General Store, are serving up a fiddlehead pizza on which the green is joined by chicken, onions, cheese and a special barbeque sauce.
“Doing this crossed my mind and a friend of mine suggested I do it,” Bouley said. “So far it’s been very popular and we are selling double our usual number of pizzas because of it.”
Bouley did not have a count of how many fiddlehead pizzas he’s sold since putting it on the menu last week, but did say his Facebook post about it has garnered more than 30,000 views.
“It really blows my mind,” he said. “Maybe it’s the nostalgia of fresh fiddleheads that’s attracting people? I really don’t know.”
Local historian Don Cyr of Lille Plt., remembers eating the tender greens as a boy and these days he likes nothing better than making a pot of fiddlehead soup by cooking up a batch in chicken broth, onion and garlic. He then blends it to liquify and adds cream and salt to taste.
“For the early Acadians, fiddleheads were, with dandelions, the first green of the season,” Cyr said. “They were lifesaving in that they prevented scurvy [and] they ate them from the very beginning, taking a cure from the Mi’kmaq natives.”
Bouley also grew up picking and eating fiddleheads in northern Maine, but for Salsbury, a native of New Hampshire, it was something new.
“At first I was kind of ‘meh’ on the idea of our putting it on a pizza,” she said. “But then I was open to it and am glad I was.”
Regardless of how or where the fiddleheads are served in Maine, the season to enjoy them fresh is finite, and that may be some of the appeal.
“We will keep serving the pizza as long as we have the fresh fiddleheads,” Bouley said. “And I am going to freeze some to see if we can make it last into June.”
All the restaurants are relying on local foragers to keep them supplied.
“It’s a great way for folks to make some extra money this time of year, “Bouley said. “I have had some tell me they can make $500 or $600 a week picking them.”
And once they are gone, they are gone.
“There is a real seasonality that is important to the consumer,” Gervais said. “And the idea of local food is also important, so when you pair that up people are really into it, plus, it’s really our thing up in the north.”
They are also an edible sign of spring.
“I grew up in Japan where there are fiddleheads,” Chaiken said. “There and here in Maine, whenever they start popping up we know it’s spring and everything is awesome now.”
And there appears to be no end to what the fern can do when it comes to preparation.
“I think the world is really ready for fiddlehead poutine,” Bouley said.