Fiddleheads, a seasonal spring vegetable, are often described as a delicacy, elusive, even whimsical. Grown in the wild in northern regions, fiddleheads can be foraged for only a limited number of weeks each year. Their name derives from the fact that (duh) they look like the head of a fiddle instrument. And for some reason, that makes people go crazy for them: farmers' market fans eagerly await them, Instagram foodies snap the crap out of them, and chefs proudly present them on their menus. Yet, the young unfurled fronds of these edible ferns are really not so different from the common plant cowering in the corner of your office cubicle. So really, what's the big deal?
Admittedly, it would be accurate to state that I am an active participant in the fiddlehead fandom. Since first discovering them in a restaurant in Hamburg, Germany, to now hunting them down at the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, those mysterious curly greens gots a hold on me. But after a few exciting seasons of seeking them out, cooking them up, and of course posting the pics, I can't help but wonder: Are fiddleheads actually a delicious delicacy worthy of all the hype, or are they just another seasonal food trend playing hard to get?
Not trusting my own amateur palate, I sought out two of Montreal's top chefs, Danny Smiles of celeb chef Chuck Hughes' Le Bremner, and David McMillan of the famed Joe Beef. Each had a very different opinion on our fiddlehead friends, the latter boasting his love for them, the former simply starting with "Fuck fiddleheads."
It's not that Smiles doesn't think fiddleheads taste good. "They are just a waste of time," he says, adding, "and they don't need 400 Instagram posts." Smiles opted out of including fiddleheads on his menu for the first time this year, claiming them to be too labor-intensive. "They're dirty. They go brown from oxidization. I'm way more into asparagus." That said, Smiles does appreciate the novelty of fiddleheads, stating, "They're cool when you first come out of cooking school." And the self-proclaimed veggie lover says that if a chef wanted to make a dish centered on fiddleheads, rather than just using them as a trendy garnish as he often sees, "I respect that. That's cool."
One thing chef Dave McMillan can agree on is that fiddleheads should be a standalone treat. He serves them at all three of his restaurants, Joe Beef, Liverpool House, and Le Vin Papillon, not in a pasta with cream sauce or atop fish, but simply sautéed and served as a snack at the bar or as an à la carte side. "I love fiddleheads," says McMillan, who used to pick them as a kid near Quebec City, and sell them door-to-door. "They are the first sign of spring, the first thing to eat from the land."
McMillan admits, however, that his affection for fiddleheads is not much different from his adoration of most seasonal local foods, like ramps, morels, or strawberries. "I have a double portion of fiddleheads in spring, then I'm done."
When asked if fiddleheads could be made available all year round, like broccoli or carrots, would they become a weekly or monthly staple for McMillan, his answer was no: "I wouldn't want them all year."
So it seems the allure of our little fiddles really does stem from their exclusivity, though in the end, as McMillan laments, that's not such a bad thing. With hothouse tomatoes available all winter long and oranges shipped from Florida year round, there are few things still sacredly picked and eaten from the wild here in the north. Fiddleheads may grow near to the ground and potentially cause beaver fever if not cleaned and cooked correctly, and they may taste suspiciously similar to asparagus or spinach, but they are a unique little gift from Mother Nature each spring that hasn't yet been totally manipulated by man.
And for that I say they are worthy of their 15 minutes of food fame each year. So forage, sauté, and Instagram away, my fellow fiddlehead fiends, before your time is up.