"Growing up in a family of woodsmen has taught me to recognize about every wild edible
thing in the Maine woods.... I was hoping you could suggest a recipe for...Fiddleheads." Amos Herrera, Maine
I think almost everyone has heard of "fiddlehead ferns," the tasty wild vegetable reminiscent of asparagus and found across much of North America in the spring. Yet, unfortunately, not all fiddleheads are edible. Three, however, are, and they are so widespread that one or more are available to over half the inhabitants of the United States in April (South) and May (North).
The king of the edible fiddleheads is the ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris, also known as Matteuccia pennsylvanica). It inhabits the eastern half of America from Virginia up into Canada. It has large (1-5 feet) sterile leave and smaller (1-2 feet) fertile leaves that turn brown when mature. In the fiddlehead stage, its upper coil is covered with papery, brown scales that fall away as the leaves uncoil. Its leafstalk is dark green, shiny conspicuously grooved on the inside of the leafstalk. The fiddleheads emerge in clusters of 2-8 amid brown fertile leaves from the previous year. They are best harvested when about 8 inches tall.
Both the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) have edible fiddleheads. The lady fern rises 2-3 feet on the floor of conifer forests and every leaf is fertile. It is a lighter green than the ostrich fern, with thinner, less tightly coiled fiddleheads. Its stalk is also grooved, but less conspicuously so. The stalk has a sparse coating of dark-brown, curled-up, papery scales that look like short, thick, hairs which should be rubbed off before preparing. They grow from sea level to 6,000 feet.
The bracken fern is probably the most abundant fern on earth and fossils date it around at least 55 million years. It rises singularly (both ostrich and lady ferns grow in clusters, called rosettes) to a height of up to 5 feet. Each stalk splits into three main forks, forming a large, roughly triangular frond that grows horizontally. Bracken fiddleheads are not coiled up like ostrich are lady ferns. The top may droop down slightly or may not, may curl up slightly or may not The three main forks are each unfurled next to one another and are called croziers. Bracken shoots are covered with a layer of short, rusty-colored fuzz that is easily be rubbed off before use. It grows from sea level to about 3,000 feet, but will tolerate more sun than ostrich or lady ferns.
Bracken ferns contain a chemical, ptaquiloside, which is a known a carcinogen if consumed in huge quantities. Before you freak out, just remember that we often eat foods -- such as char-broiled meat, potato chips, and all smoked meats, fish and cheeses -- containing carcinogenic chemicals. Indeed, we all probably eat several thousand times as many potato chips as we eat bracken ferns. A few bracken fiddleheads, made into wine, will not kill you.
Much more potentially harmful, because that are toxic, are the cinnamon fern (Osmundea cinnamomea) and the interrupted fern (Osmundea claytonia), both of which superficially resemble the ostrich fern in the fiddlehead stage. The cinnamon fern prefers sandy soil in partial shade where the water table is close to the surface. Interrupted fern is abundant in wooded areas across much of the range of ostrich fern and likes partial shade on rich, moist to mucky soil. In the fiddlehead stage, these two large ferns can be easily discriminated by the presence of wool covering the fiddleheads and by the absence of the U-shaped groove running the length of the stem.
Bring water to boil and add fiddleheads. Reduce heat to a simmer (do not boil) for 45 minutes. Strain off ferns to eat (dozens of ways to incorporate them) and add sugar to water and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Set aside, covered with cloth, to cool and then add water, acid blend, yeast nutrient, and activated yeast starter to primary. Cover primary and set aside for three days. Transfer to secondary, top up if required and fit airlock. Ferment to dryness, then rack, top up and refit airlock. Repeat every 30 days until wine clears and no new sediments form during a 30-day period. Stabilize and sweeten to taste if desired (if sweetened, wait three weeks to catch any renewed fermentation) and rack into bottles. Like most wines, it should improve with some age. [Author's own recipe]
My thanks to Amos Herrera of Maine for requesting this recipe.