Fiddlehead fern information

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"It's shaped like the head of a violin, but it's the size of your curled baby finger. It tastes like a cross between asparagus, spinach and okra, but in actuality, no other flavor...[quite matches] it. It grows wild in damp areas - it is especially prosperous in New England forests - and it turns up at specialty markets and the finest restaurants across the United States. A unique American delicacy, it's known as the fiddlehead fern.

"Butch Wells knows a thing or two about fiddleheads. Wells is the largest processor of fiddleheads in the state of Maine, probably in the United States. Last year, his company, W.S. Wells & Son of Wilton, Maine, handled 24 tons of fiddleheads. His wares have been shipped as far away as Japan and are served at prestigious restaurants such as the Four Seasons in New York.

"The company was started in 1896 by Wells' grandfather, Walter Scott. 'The neighbors would bring over vegetables from their victory gardens for Grandfather to can,' recalls Wells. For many years, creamed corn was the big seller, but in the '50s the big canneries began to put the little guys out of business. Butch, whose real name is into fiddleheads by accident. It probably saved the business. Wells had never eaten a fiddlehead, but his wife Jeanne grew up with them. In 1968, some friends from Vermont asked Wells to can a batch of fiddleheads they had gathered.

That got him started and he put up three tons the first year; they sold like proverbial hotcakes. He decided to specialize in vegetables overlooked by the big canneries: dandelion greens, beet greens and fiddleheads. Today, he averages 25 to 30 tons...of fiddleheads a year, depending on growing conditions."

"The fiddlehead is the furled shoot of a freshly sprouted ostrich fern. It resembles a bishop's crosier, or the head of [a] fiddle, which is how it acquired its name. There are dozens of varieties of ferns in the U.S.

'Some taste bitter; other will make you downright sick,' warns Wells. 'The ostrich is the only fern that is safe for people to eat.' "...the ostrich fern is easy to recognize. It is covered with a papery brown membrane, which Wells likens to onion skin. (Nonedible varieties may be covered with white, black, or cinnamon-colored fuzz.) Another feature distinguishes the ostrich from inedible ferns: the cross-section of the stem, when cut, resembles a horseshoe.

"The fiddlehead pokes it head above the ground in early May and is good to eat for about three weeks. At the start of the season, Wells puts the word out to about 200 pickers in Maine and Vermont. 'We have young and old, married and single, the unemployed and people working two jobs,' says Wells. Fifteen pounds an hour is the average but a good picker can bring in 200 pounds a day. The pickers are notoriously tight-lipped about the location of prolific fern patches..." "Fiddlehead picking is hard work: the ferns grow close to the ground, so the picker spends most of the day hunched over. It's best snapped off the stem, not cut, and grows in clusters of eight or 10. Wells has his pickers gather them when they are about three inches high with one inch of stem.

'They're harder to pick that way, but the quality is better,' he says.

"The best weather conditions for fiddleheads are a lot of snow in the winter and a good, long, slow-warming spring. Wells hopes for two or three nights of cold weather in spring to slow the unfurling process. The fern must be eaten or processed before the frond unfurls.

"The ferns are processed in a brand-new facility in Chesterville, Maine.

The ferns are placed in a dry wheel tumbler where a fan blows away the papery skin. Next, the ferns are washed three times, then sorted and blanched. The canned fiddleheads will be cooked in a retort for 30 minutes. 'This makes the product softer than I would wish for, but it's required by the FDA,' Wells says." "Half of the crop is shipped fresh to produce markets across the U.S. (The Boston-based supermarket Stop 'N Shop alone buys six to eight tons.) The remainder will be pickled in vinegar and brine with a spice mixture invented by Jeanne Wells. 'It contains garlic, bay leaf and red pepper, habit forming,' Jeanne says.

"When buying fiddleheads, consumers are advised by Wells to look for bright green, fresh-looking ferns with tightly furled fronds. 'The browner the stem, the longer the fern has been sitting around,' Wells says. The discolored part isn't harmful to eat, but most people prefer to cut it off.

"The only hard part about preparing fiddlehead ferns is removing the skin.

Jeanne...suggests placing the fiddleheads in a lettuce dryer with a lid and shaking them for 5 to 10 minutes. Rinse them in a bowl of cold water afterward and the chaff will float away. 'Or you can bring them to the shop and we'll clean them for 20 cents a pound,' Jeanne says." "Fiddlehead ferns can be prepared any way in which spinach or asparagus would. [And if fresh fiddleheads are unavailable, replace them with asparagus rather than using canned fiddleheads, the author says.] The Wellses boil them until tender, and then bake them in casseroles and quiche. When tasting fiddlehead ferns for the first time, try a simple preparation, so you appreciate the unique flavor of the fern.

"The Wellses also pickle dandelion buds and string beans. The demand for these items and their fiddleheads far exceeds the supply..." From Steven Raichlen's 05/02/90"No Time to Fiddle Around: The Season is Short for the Elusive Ostrich Fern Sprout" article in "The Washington (DC) Post." Pg. E16. Posted by Cathy Harned.

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