In the forager's universe, there's no time like right now. From fiddleheads and ramps to morels and wild ginger, spring is the season for sourcing wild food. To get some first-hand spring foraging knowledge of our own, we caught up with Steve Stacey, forager and director of the Local CFC—a community food center in Stratford, Ontario—to learn how to scour the earth for edible buried treasure.
We're kicking off our foraging series with the queen diva—the Beyoncé, if you will—of springtime foraging. It's a plant whose annoyingly short season is only made more finicky by its remote growing region and temperamental nature: the fiddlehead.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Steve. How did you first get into foraging? Steve Stacey: Fiddleheads were basically my intro. I was always into fishing, which I guess is also wild food, and it just naturally progressed. And it was way easier to pick fiddleheads than it was to catch fish. You can always go home with something when it's fiddleheads.
Like most fiddlehead foragers, you have your own secret spot you like to go to every year. How did you find that place? It's only a few miles from a farm my family use to own. I use to go trout fishing there when I was a kid. I was sitting on the side of the river, and I looked down and saw this green thing, and I thought, I think people eat those. So I looked into it a little further and saw that lots of people ate them. So I picked a bunch and tried them, and they were so good.
How remote are we talking here? It's funny, because where I go, what I find every year is the remnants of this grow-op. These guys must come in May or June and grow weed, and that sort of speaks to how remote it is. Obviously they are on the opposite season, so our paths have never crosse. But we're both there for the same reason, because it's really remote and good things grow out there. It's pretty funny.
You just got back from this year's fiddlehead forage. What was the day like? It's a bit of a challenge to get out there. Because it's quite remote, you can't just drive your car and get out and get fiddleheads. Where we go, you have to park you car at the edge of a conservation area, and hike through the conservation area to the other side where you get to an area that's just public, Crown land for miles on the side of this river. You don't see any houses or any people or anything like that. It's isolated and pristine.
Fiddlehead season is short and picking the right day to go out is crucial. How do you know when to head out on a foraging trip? After 20 years of doing this, you get this sort of sixth sense where you can tell the weather is creeping up. You can feel that things are budding and things are starting to come out of the ground. Fiddleheads are some of the first things to come up.
What sort of places are the best to look for fiddleheads? From my experience, you have to be within 100 meters of water of some sort. My family farm had a tributary running through it, and when I first found this fiddlehead spot I thought, Oh, I can just go to the river and there should be some there because it's only a couple miles away, but there was nothing. I've noticed that you can find them in areas that have cedars because they like the same sort of environment and to be near water. Generally when you do find them, you'll find them in that sort of moist, near-water, valley terrain. It can't be too swampy. If you go too far north, it becomes the Canadian shield and it's too rocky. Another good way to know where to look is if you see spore sticks; they're tall, so you can see them from a ways away, and that means there are fiddleheads around there.
What's the step-by-step process of harvesting them? Over time I've learned what equipment works well. I improvised this sort of side bag that I made out of a grain sack and a garden hose in a circle around the top to keep the mouth open. And then just a nice, light pair of sharp scissors.
They come up in these sort of pockets, and you just creep down going from plant to plant, clipping. The younger plants appear to just be coming out of the ground like asparagus, whereas each of the mature plants is in this sort of base that's got a texture and appearance like the outside of a rough pineapple. If you look at that base and actually opened it up, you'd see next year's fiddleheads and the following year's fiddleheads. They are these tiny little white baby shoots. They don't need to reproduce to come out the next year—the plant just unfurls another batch from that base the next year.
Which are the best ones to harvest and which are the ones to leave alone? In each of those bases, you'll find them coming up, and in each plant there will be ones in different states of unfurling. Once they're started to unfurl and you can actually see leaves, I don't even touch those. A few leaves would be fine but I only go for the ones that are completely still curled up. And the really, really good ones are the ones that have this sort of brown paper over them. This brown paper protects them from frost, because it's still early in the year and it's easy for them to experience frost. So if you do have a frost the night before, the ones with the brown paper will be fine and the ones have started to come up will have an almost purplish tinge to them.
Wow. Are you concerned about over-foraging these ferns? It's almost impossible to over-pick because there's always going to be ones that are too early and always be ones that are too late, even within the same plant. So you're really just picking the ones that are at that sweet spot and the rest have their due course.
Where I pick there's literally miles of this terrain. When I first was picking I thought, Oh no, have I over-picked this spot? And then I went back later in the summer and you wouldn't even have known I was there, because it's just so completely heavy with ferns and the next year they all just come back again. They're a really unique plant.
The fern is the only green plant that produces through spores and it's really amazing. Some people think ferns are from outer space because they just don't follow the rules that other plants do.
There are these brownish-red sticks that look like dead ferns, and when you're picking and you hit them, which you almost always accidentally do, they send out this little cloud of spores. So as opposed to harming the plant, you're actually helping it reproduce because you're hitting that stick as you're picking and the spores are getting thrown all over the place.
So what do you do with these amazing fiddleheads after picking? It's important to cook fiddleheads properly. If you're going to be safe about it and not get sick, you can't just boil or roast or steam them. You have to wash them a couple of times at least, just to start. And if there's any of that brown paper on the outside, you want to make sure you've washed all of that away in cold water, then change the water and rinse them again.
It's also really important that you parboil them once. Boil the water, put them in, then keep it at a boil for about two to five minutes. Some people will tell you that you have to boil them for 15 minutes, but if you do that there's nothing left texture-wise. Then take them out and dunk them in ice-cold water. When you look at the water in the pot they were in, it looks like this very dark black water. But when you pour it out you can see it's actually a deep garnet red, and that's what's bad for you. So if you were to skip that step, or try and eat them raw, or even eat them directly out of the garnet-colored water without rinsing them once more, there's a chance you will get sick.
What are some of your favorite fiddlehead recipes? Cook them more, or make a nice salad. I like to make soup with them. I'll put a bunch in a standard soup base and puree them, and add a bunch that are whole and then sprinkle some tarragon on top. Our friend was uncurling them and creating this beautiful dish of quick-pickled and tempura-fried fiddleheads with fermented carrot puree and salsa verde, and unraveling some of them to make these beautiful spirals.
You use to sell your fiddleheads to some of Toronto's best restaurants but have recently cut back. Why is that? When I first was foraging, it was super-fun but I'd just sell to all the super-fancy restaurants in Toronto. I'd pick for five days then spend the weekend in Toronto and blow all our money in the city over the weekend, and then do it again. But ever since I've started working with the Local CFC, I've brought the fiddleheads to the CFC and some local restaurants, and it feels a lot nicer to share these foraged things with the people in the community. We're a pilot for what's now becoming a national organization and network of community food centers across Canada. Our model is about connecting people who are often excluded from the good food movement and bringing them right into it through cooking, gardening, community meals, and other activism campaigns.
Our goal is to make sure that everyone is benefiting from local food, both farmed and foraged, so it doesn't become this elitist niche and instead can be use to promote a just society and fairer food system and all those good things. Although Stratford is known for food and agriculture and great ingredients, there's a pretty significant section of the population where just none of that was available to them. The ability to bring my passion for local food to this project and then to quite literally bring food that's really important to me like fiddleheads to the community members feels really good right. This is my third year of picking fiddleheads and bringing them back to the community food center, and it feels really good.
Thanks for talking with us, Steve. Forage on.