“And keep an eye out for fiddleheads. I’ve heard they’re just starting to come up.” Daniel stood at the door, leaning back on the wooden frame, resting the tray of glass jugs on his hip. He turned to leave, tossed the idea over his shoulder, an afterthought for me to mull on while he filled up water from the well.
I was visiting him, his wife, and two children in Maine. They had moved from New Haven to an orchard and farm to help the owner run his apple CSA, and to live and raise their kids closer to the land. I was there for a change of pace, however brief: to help plant grafted apple saplings, to spend time with the family, and to eat very, very well.
Fiddleheads: that little seed of a suggestion took hold quickly, forming a sort of proleptic quiver, a shivering certainty that yes, we would find some and yes, we would eat them with freshness and gusto.
That was Sunday evening. Monday, the little coiled ferns revealed themselves to me in the loamy stretch behind the house. Bunched in clusters of seven or eight, the small spirals were just beginning to poke up above the woodland floor: polar geometries the colour of jade, stark against the wan grasses and damp stumps. Some branched out into three dimensions, losing or forsaking an even planar coil for a convoluted, twisting mass, the fractalised fronds already visible, tightly bound up into themselves beneath shavings of papery skin, like bonito flakes or the membranous crepe of roe.
I returned to them again on Tuesday just when the light was beginning to come more sideways than from above. And they still startled me: strange, almost prehistoric, especially set against the dun woods just coming into spring. I gathered three or four heads per cluster (to keep the plant alive and producing), a little pile in a glass bowl, and brought them back around to the gazebo to rinse them, dry them, and peel off the skins before dinner.
We ate them raw, with local goat’s cheese, Vermont camembert, vegetables and fresh-baked whey bread. It was the simplest of dinners, and supremely satisfying. The fiddleheads surprised us: astringent and slightly bitter on the tongue, intensely vegetal and aromatic, though they dried the mouth. Such is the case of a wild food high in antioxidants, omegas 3 and 6, iron, fibre, more. Nutrient-dense, certainly, and delicious, but as a novelty; we couldn’t eat more than two or three each at most. They did go well with the goat’s cheese, but I wanted to discover the way to bring out their own particular deliciousness.
The next night, I made linguine with a pesto of toasted black sesame, coriander, aniseed, and cumin. After tossing the pasta, I gathered some more of those emerald scrolls, brought them right back and scattered them into a pan with sea salt and a knob of butter. Kissed with a minute of heat, they transformed: still crisp and fresh, but newly tender; their bitterness fell away under a sheen of butterfat and the beginnings of a carmelised sear. They were bright, jovial, transparent, noble – the essence of chlorophyll and the first growth of the season. We served them warm over pasta. Some think it strange to eat ferns; I say, if it grows and is good to eat, eat it and eat it well.