I grew up in Maine and up there, this time of year we eat fiddleheads. Fiddleheads are the tightly coiled tips of spring ferns—specifically, ostrich ferns—and they taste kind of like asparagus once they’re cooked. Until last week, I didn’t think you could find them locally.
Charlie Grimm is an amateur forager. He says that where we’re walking—in a wet, boggy area in the woods of Truro— we won’t find fiddleheads, but we will find another edible fern species. It’s called osmundastrum cinnamomea. It’s the only member of the genus in existence and it’s one of the oldest ferns because there’s a fossil record of it going back 75 million years.
Charlie came upon them a couple years ago and on closer inspection and research, he found out that they weren’t like the true fiddlehead you find in the market. But traditionally, they’ve been eaten too.
I asked Charlie how they’re different from the fiddlehead I knew. He explained that if you look at the stalk, they don’t have the traditional deep u-shaped groove at the top side. They also taste different.
Osmundastrum cinnamomea, also known as the cinnamon fern, is a little more lemon flavored, Grimm says, and also much harder to clean.
He explained that they have tiny, fine hairs that can be a bit bitter and also kind of a pain to clean off, but by rubbing it and running it under cold water, and washing them, you can get rid of them. “It takes a lot of work, it’s not an easy wild food, you know.”
The cinnamon ferns will lose these hairs once they unfurl, but for cooking, you need to get them while they’re just coming up—around this time, from late April through mid-May.
When Charlie picks them, he makes sure that there’s a lot of the plant so that he’s not hurting their chances of persisting. His rule of thumb is that if he sees a bunch, he’ll only take a third of the group and cuts them a few inches below the fiddlehead.
He likes to boil them, and then just sauté them with some butter and garlic., The smaller they are and the more tightly wound they are, the more tender they are he thinks, tastier.
Grimm says that like regular fiddleheads and pokeweed and a few other foraged foods, these ferns shouldn’t be eaten raw, as you might get indigestion. He also doesn’t recommend eating too many, because one study says that extremely heavy fern consumption has been linked to health problems. That said, Grimm thinks eating them once a spring, in moderation, is fine.
Once Charlie Grimm’s filled his bag, we head out of the woods and back home—me to try and find my own cinnamon fern patch, and Grimm to cook his family a tasty, local feast.
This episode of the Local Food Report is a rebroadcast of one that originally aired on May 19, 2011.