Identifying the Ostrich Fern
As with anything foraged – only harvest fiddleheads if you are 100% certain you have identified the plant correctly. There are other common ferns that grow in Ontario which will give you a severe stomach upset. The edible fern in question is called the Osterich Fern (matteuccia struthiopteris) and can be recognized by: 1.) Looking at the fern’s stem – this should be smooth and with a deep ‘groove’; 2.) is often larger than other ferns; 3.) likes river valleys and is both found in direct sun or shade; 4.) grows out of a rootball that looks like a stump; 5.) likes an undisturbed area where it will grow for many decades; 6.) likes a rich soil.
Sustainable Fiddlehead Harvesting
The key to a healthy fiddlehead patch is don’t over harvest. Each crown has what looks like a bunch of knuckles covered in brass paper. Most crowns have about seven fronds that will all unfurl over a two to four week period in early to mid spring, depending on the weather. If it gets too warm, the fiddleheads will bolt and come up too fast. When they begin to unfurl, you can pick up to three from each crown. Taking more can eventually stunt or damage the plant. These plants are amazing producers and often live for fifty or more years. Only take the fronds that are about 1-4 inches above the crown. Take a fiddlehead between your fingers and snap it backwards away from the curl and close to the crown – about an inch. Leave the longer ones to unfurl. For the health of the fern – and to keep your fiddlehead patch from being decimated over the years – don’t harvest more than three fronds per crown. Choose the ones closer to the ground, these are tighter and retain more body when cooked. Always be careful not to step on the other plants around you or you can damage them.
Cleaning, storing and shipping your fiddleheads
When you have returned to your kitchen with your bounty, place under a stream of cold water to thoroughly rinse the fiddleheads and clear off the pieces of brass foil-like paper attached to some of the heads. A hose and a clean bucket will do wonders. Forget about washing in streams and lakes where there can be barnyard or septic system runoff. That can make people sick if they neglect to cook them long enough. You can bag up the washed fiddleheads in clear plastic bags and keep cool or cold.
They can be shipped in styrofoam coolers (which can be picked up from the back of restaurants and hotels) and washed out thoroughly. Freeze a couple of plastic water or pop bottles, wrap in paper and place in the cooler. Then tape the cooler so no heat can get in.
Prices and Customers
In Toronto you can find fiddleheads for sale from anywhere between 6 to 15 dollars a pound . Be ready to drop and raise the price depending on how fresh the fiddleheads look and the competition you encounter. Selling the fiddleheads wholesale you could aim to negotiate around $3 to $3.75 per lb. Selling directly to chefs could bring in, depending on scarcity, between $6 and $15 per lb (plus shipping). If you have found a way to sell to urban consumers directly, you may be surprised to find that the fiddlehead is novel to many city folk. Some people have never even seen the vegetable before, a handful may have eaten it at a restaurant, and mostly you will have to explain what the fiddlehead-fuss is all about. Inform your customers on how to clean and cook the fiddleheads so stomach upsets can be avoided. The safest way to prepare the fern, is to soak it in a bit of water while you cut off any of the brown bits. Bring some water to boil and blanche the fiddleheads for 3 minutes, discard the water and blanche for an additional 3-5 minutes. Health Canada recommends boiling or steaming the fiddleheads for a total of 15 minutes.
- Ontario Ferns is an online fieldguide and could aid your identification of the matteuccia struthiopteris : http://www.ontarioferns.com/
- Health Canada’s food safety advice for preparing fiddleheads: http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca/recall-alert-rappel-avis/hc-sc/2013/26809a-eng.php
- University of Maine Video on how to identify fiddleheads: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2yEdUkx8UQ
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