Features |Fiddling aboutBy Patrick Timothy Mullikin Correspondent | April 29,2008
They're sure signs of spring: tight green coils breaking through snow-free earth along riverbanks and forest floors.
The lucky ones escape and unfurl heavenward as 3-foot fronds. Others are gathered while still in their crosier or fiddlehead stage by hungry and determined foragers. Those end up in a pot, boiled, with a splash of vinegar and a pinch of salt, or in a sauté pan with butter and garlic.
Either way they're pure heaven to the hordes of fiddlehead fanatics.
Their early May arrival heralds the end of winter (knock wood). Consider the fiddlehead the appetizer to summer and fall's pending bounty.
Granted while their unique taste has plenty to do with their popularity – a cross between artichokes, asparagus and green beans with a subtle nutty overtone – the gathering is also an important part of the overall fiddlehead experience. (Sure, you can buy them in some stores during the short-lived fiddlehead season. Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier will be selling them for between $4 and $5 pound when they arrive later this week.)
"It has been my experience that people are generally less secretive about their fiddlehead source than they are about, for example, perhaps, their special mushroom location; they're even less secretive about their dandelion greens location," jokes Bob Eddy, 57, co-chair of Randolph Center's Second Annual Fiddlehead Festival scheduled for Saturday.
"It's an exhilarating thing to walk into the woods and see fiddleheads growing and to know they're ready to be harvested, to be able to pull out a bag or open your pocket and fill them with these things and take them back and sauté them with a little butter and add a little salt and sit down and have something that's an absolute delight and has a taste that's unlike any other vegetable you can imagine."That, in a nutshell, is the fiddlehead experience: gathering, preparation and consumption.
Maine native James Rosebush, 28, who works at the Hunger Mountain Co-op, has been eating fiddleheads for as long as he can remember.
Foraging for them with his father, Bill, back in Millinocket, Maine, was a rite of spring for the now-Plainfield resident. (The elder Rosebush takes his fiddleheading seriously and built a bingo cage-like machine that removes the paper-like chaff from the fiddleheads.)
The younger Rosebush says he can't distinguish any taste differences between Maine fiddleheads and Vermont fiddleheads. The fern is abundant in both states, and people, he says, are usually open about good picking sites.
"It's not like fishing. People tell you. Fiddleheads are everywhere," he says.
Rosebush's mother, Jessica, boils her fiddleheads with salt pork and potatoes. In his Plainfield kitchen, Rosebush opts for a simpler recipe: sautéed butter and salt. "I've heard that it's not very good to eat them raw."
Fiddlesticks! You can eat them raw – just not too many, says raw-food fanatic Linda Wooliever, 37, who operates the aptly named Vermont Fiddle Heads, a raw-foods business and soon-to-be cafe in Worcester Village.
Wooliever suggests, however, that fiddleheads en masse be steamed or sautéed for about 10 minutes to kill any possible bacteria. "If you eat a whole bunch of them raw, it might come back a little bit later," she warns. "You might throw up from raw fiddleheads."
A few raw fiddleheads on a salad, however, are perfectly fine, she says.
"Everybody talks about the fiddlehead. It's like this sacred thing here in Vermont. I love that. I brought some home to my dad in New Jersey, and he was totally perplexed. He liked them, but he had to look past the weirdness of them."
Patrick Timothy Mullikin is a freelance writer and editor at The Times Argus who lives in Montpelier. He can be reached at Patrick@patricktimothymullikin.comMORE IN FEATURES17
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