Nothing says springtime in Maine quite like freshly foraged fiddleheads. The curled tops of the ostrich fern stem, also known as croziers, come up for about two weeks before they unfurl. When cooked properly, they taste like a cross between an artichoke and asparagus.
There is a challenge, though. The croziers are covered with a thin, papery layer, also known as the “parchment” or “chaff,” that must be removed before cooking.
“The chaff — that brown, onion skin-like parchment — contains lots of tannin, which makes the fiddlehead bitter,” said Tom Seymour, naturalist and author of “Wild Plants of Maine — A Useful Guide, Forager’s Notebook, Foraging New England,” who is based in Waldo.
Removing this papery covering is a topic of contention amongst foragers in Maine. There are two primary camps in the debate: those who use water to remove this parchment, and those who don’t.
Take it to the river
Many foragers turn to the stream, washing the husks off of fiddleheads in the rushing water as they walk along gathering them. Some, like Monica Lynn, a forager in Piscataquis County, will carry the fiddleheads in 5-gallon buckets with large, homemade holes drilled into them. Others drag their fiddleheads along baskets made of quarter-inch hardware cloth, laundry bags, onion bags and other perforated containers.
“I pick them right into a minnow trap and just rinse them right off in the river,” said Jocelyn Howe, a forager in Houlton. “I picked it up in the fishing [aisle] at Walmart. Super quick and easy, and I swear it makes them taste better!”
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However, David Spahr, author of “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada,” who is based in Washington, Maine, said that there are risks to washing fiddleheads in stream water.
“Most streams will have beavers and muskrats and things like that in them,” he said. “Giardia, [or] beaver fever, could be a problem for a person that undercooks their fiddleheads. There is a level of danger there, using stream water to wash them off.”
To avoid the potential pitfalls of streamwater, some Mainer foragers use hoses to spray their fiddleheads clean. Wendy Smith in Houlton said her father, Kenneth Foster, uses a table with a wood frame and gridded wire surface with high-pressure hose water.
WATCH: Homemade fiddlehead cleaner
Shake it up
Foragers like Seymour vehemently decry the water-based approach to cleaning fiddleheads.
“It makes the parchment stick to the fiddleheads like grim death,” he said. “What would happen if you wrapped fiddleheads in thin tissue paper and then dunked them in water? The tissue would adhere to the fiddleheads and become impossible to remove.”
The same thing, Seymour said, happens to the chaff with fiddleheads in water.
Instead, Seymour will use his fingers to clear some of the papery husk.
“I try to remove the worst of it when I am picking the fiddleheads,” Seymour said. “A snap with the finger before breaking the stem is often all it takes to remove the largest bits. Pinching and cleaning as you go makes it more efficient.”
Other foragers will agitate the fiddleheads in the container they collect them.
“I use the 5-gallon bucket I put the fiddleheads in when harvesting them,” said Jonathan McEndarfer, a forager in Woodland. “As I am harvesting, I take the bucket and lift it up and down. The chaff from the fiddleheads [is] blown by the wind while keeping the good fiddleheads inside the bucket. By the time I bring them home, there is not much to have to deal with.”
Many different apparatuses can be used to shake fiddleheads around this way.
“We pick them into a colander and just shake it back and forth,” said Berwick-based forager Rob Harper. “Make sure that the colander has large holes. We were able to do a pound at a time.”
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Some foragers take a more on-the-fly approach.
“My shirt becomes a catch all, gathering the lower hem to carry back my precious goodies,” said forager Seneca Corriveau in Oxford County. “I just hold [taut] the bottom of my t-shirt & give ’em a couple tosses in the breeze.”
Other foragers get creative and crafty with their fiddlehead cleaning methods. Oxford County-based Kerri Monto said her seventh-grade son, Cody, made a box out of chicken wire that holds up to two quarts of fiddleheads at a time.
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“Keep them dry and shake them and they fall through the cracks,” she said. “Cody picks and sells fiddleheads. He picks about 30 quarts a season. He saw some of the designs on a forager’s website and modified it for what he could find lying around.”
Fred McLaughlin, a forager in Alton, built a fiddlehead husking station from PVC pipe, screens and a box fan. He said that in the 50-plus years he has been harvesting fiddleheads, this is the method that works the best.
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“I place the box fan under the screen, turn it on high, roll the fiddleheads around on the screen, remove the fan and rinse off [the fiddleheads] with a hose,” McLaughlin said. “This works extremely well for me. I usually dump around five to 10 pounds in at a time.”
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Some foragers use more unconventional machinery. Carol Flint Gay of Newcastle recalls her parents gathering fiddleheads on bedsheets in their Belfast yard in the 1950s before transferring them to the washing machine.
“Work smarter, not harder,” Gay said. “No dryer, though. I think they dried them on a sheet on the sunny lawn.”
Though Seymour said that using a washing machine is perhaps the “weirdest method” he has heard yet, he definitely recommended against using a dryer.
“I even tried it years ago,” Seymour said. “I put a bunch of fiddleheads in the dryer and got one of my old silk stockings, put it on the vent holes and went through a cycle. It was weeks before we could get all of that stuff out of the dryer. That’s not a good idea.”
Cook it away
Regardless of what method you use, Spahr said that the way you cook fiddleheads is much more important in terms of food safety.
“Cooking figures into this in a fairly serious way,” Spahr said. “Foodborne illness is an issue for fiddleheads. Fiddleheads need to not just be blanched but cooked thoroughly. Cooking them the right way, that’s going to take care of most of your problems.”
Spahr said whether you clean them using a wet or dry method, there is always going to be a little bit of parchment left behind.
“That’s where the cooking and blanching process figures into it. You’re going to throw the water away and a lot of the remnants will be in that water. After you throw that water away, you’ll want to rinse again.”
Seymour’s one big piece of advice is not to cut corners in order to save time.
“Fiddleheads have a limited window to harvest,” he said. “It’s an ephemeral spring treat, so why not just take the best care of them?”