Spring traditions, celebrating fiddleheads (with recipes)

23 May 2012

ST. JOHN VALLEY- Each spring in the Valley, as leaves burst out on the trees in the early days of May, people in search of a delicacy that they can only find during the briefest time frame each year slip on their boots and venture out to the soggy, muddy riverbanks, made that way from the final hints of winter melting slowly away.


CREATIVE METHODS - Raymond Martin stands near a brook in Madawaska last Thursday where he cleans his fiddleheads using a wire mesh basket and a fast moving current. - Pettengill Jerkins image

It’s fiddlehead season in the St. John Valley.

In the grand tradition of their Acadian and Native ancestors, who worked the land and gathered nature’s bounty to feed their large families, people of the St. John Valley have plucked fiddleheads from the banks of the St. John River and its tributaries for generations. Of course, during a short two to three week period each May, less adventurous consumers can find fiddleheads everywhere, from the local grocery, to gas station convenience stores, and tiny roadside stands. People will cook them, can them, or freeze them in a hurry because they all know it’ll be another year before fresh fiddleheads will grace their plates again.

Most people have a “secret spot” where they like to pick the infant ostrich ferns. Some are reluctant to share, but others, like Raymond Martin of St. David, are happy to pass along the tradition to anyone who might ask.

“I never picked them too much as a kid, but my parents did.” said Martin.


Image courtesy of Northern Maine Pictures


Now, as an adult, Martin finds his fiddleheads along the banks of the St. John River in St. David. He picks them by the bucketful. It’s his method of cleaning the tasty treats that is a bit unique, however.

A University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin on fiddleheads stresses the importance of proper handling and preparing to avoid foodborne illnesses from eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads. This begins with cleaning. Most people stand bent over a sink cleaning their cache after picking to remove the papery brown covering that encases the unfurled ferns, but Martin has a simpler method that uses nature to quicken the process.

Martin’s brother, a carpenter, built a special basket out of wire mesh and with a handle on top. Martin places large amounts of fiddleheads into the basket and then lowers it into a pool of fast-moving water in a brook where he gently shakes the basket to lift and toss the fiddleheads. The water quickly washes away all of the brown casings.


- Pettengill Jerkins image


“The current cleans it all out. You can clean a whole big five gallon pail in no time,” said Martin.

Martin still recommends a quick rinse under the faucet before cooking, though.

There are many ways to prepare fiddleheads beyond the traditional and tasty method of boiling or steaming and then serving with butter and salt.

Fiddlehead Focus searched near and far for different fiddlehead recipes to share.

Courtesy of Jennifer Roy

of Fort Kent

Bacon Fiddlehead Stir-Fry

1 pound bacon

2 quarts fiddleheads

2 beef bouillon cubes

Season salt

Cook bacon in skillet until crispy. Chop or crumble into bite size pieces and set aside.

In the same pan, sauté fiddleheads. Add season salt to taste and bouillon cubes. Continue to cook fiddleheads until desired crispness. Stir in bacon pieces and serve.


- Pettengill Jerkins image


Courtesy of Jodi Guy

of Fort Kent

Beer Battered Fiddleheads

2 cups beer

2 large eggs

2 cups flour

1/4 cup cornstarch

Salt and pepper

Vegetable oil for frying

Mix all ingredients, except the vegetable oil, together. Dredge clean fiddleheads through the batter. Fry in vegetable oil until golden brown.

Serve with ranch dressing for dipping.

Reader Trudy Landeen offers this advice for deep frying: They must be rinsed well and dried with paper towel first. Drop in the deep fryer for about one minute.

Courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension Publications Bulletin #4198

Fiddlehead Dijon

1-1/2 pounds fresh fiddleheads

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 cup nonfat buttermilk

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

3/4 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Clean and prepare fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Place fiddleheads in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam 20 minutes or until tender, but still crisp. Set aside, and keep warm.

Combine cornstarch and buttermilk in a small saucepan; stir well. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in mustard, lemon juice, tarragon and pepper.

Arrange fiddleheads on a serving platter. Spoon sauce over fiddleheads.


Courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension Publications Bulletin #4198

Mustard Fiddlehead Pickles

1 quart button onions (peeled)

1 quart fiddleheads

2 cups salt

4 quarts water

1 cup flour

6 tablespoons dry mustard

2 cups sugar

2 quarts vinegar

Wash and prepare button onions and fiddleheads. Mix salt and water. Pour over fiddleheads. Let stand overnight. Bring to boil, and drain in colander. Mix flour and dry mustard. Stir in enough vinegar to make smooth paste. Add sugar and vinegar. Boil until thick and smooth, stir constantly. Add the fiddleheads and cook until they are just heated through. (Overcooking makes them soft instead of crisp.) Pour into jars and seal immediately. Process 10 minutes in boiling water process canner.  Makes 8 pints.


Macho Chef's F-heads


4 cups fresh fiddleheads



2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon of chopped garlic

1-2 teaspoons of Mrs. Dash Lemon Pepper

1 fresh tomato, chopped into thumb-sized chunks


Cut off the brown tips of the fiddleheads. Rinse the fiddleheads at least 5 times in clean cold water.

Fill a large saucepan to within  two inches of the top with water. Add a teaspoon of salt to the water. Bring it to a boil. Add the fiddleheads to the boiling water for seven minutes. Drain and remove the fiddleheads. Set them to the side. Rinse the saucepan.

 On medium heat, melt the oil and butter in the saucepan. Throw in the garlic and fry it for one minute, then add the fiddleheads and Mrs. Dash Lemon Pepper. Cook for about five minutes.

Finally, spread the chopped tomato across the top and let cook, without stirring, for an additional minute. Serve it up.



- Pettengill Jerkins image



Just be careful where you

Just be careful where you pick them. Some of those islands are in 'Canadian waters', and our ever vigilant Border Patrol will actually land their helicopter on foreign soil to tell you that you have to leave the fiddleheads there. Does anyone else notice the hypocrisy here? Can't have those 'Canadian' fiddleheads here, but we can invade a foreign country to keep them there. Funny how they can totally ruin a 200 year tradition without even trying hard. What's next, citizen papers for the Muskie?


I would love to have some fiddleheads right now! Sadly, they are not available where I live. Yes, fiddleheads are a tradition in my family, of Scottish origin. Not all in The Valley are or were Acadian or "native".

Fiddleheads for everyone!

Yes hannahss, I'm glad you mentioned that. Where the focus of the article was region specific, I did specify the two major population heritages in the Valley, but I never intended to leave anyone out. People all over New England, and undoubtedly from many different cultural backgrounds, enjoy fresh fiddleheads that grow in their area. Fiddleheads are found on riverbanks much farther south than the Valley as well. Unfortunately, it seems that the farther away you happen to be from the area, fiddleheads found, usually in specialty stores, seem to be quite expensive. Author's note, there are no cultural monopolies on those who share traditions of fiddleheads in their families. Respectfully, Monica Pettengill Jerkins, Editor