FARMINGTON — For most of his 71 years, Frank Buckley Sr. of Industry has gathered fiddlehead ferns in the spring to eat and to freeze for future meals.
The abundance of the quickly maturing plants found around the Sandy River this time of year had him sitting in his car off the Wilton Road near Farmington Ford on Tuesday ready to sell pounds of the green curls.
In the spring, he keeps watch to see when they are ready to pick. They go by fast, he said. So fast, that he hired a couple pickers to help him this year.
Whether motorists stop for a couple of pounds or more, he loves the work. A Massachusetts man stopped Sunday to buy 100 pounds for a wild game meal. He bought 20 pounds last year, but people loved them and it wasn’t enough, he said.
The recent cool weather has slowed growth somewhat, Buckley said. Even so, he had several buckets packed with fiddleheads. Picking up a single fiddlehead, he said pickers have to look for the horseshoe-shaped stem. Some early ferns have a round stem with white fuzz that is not for consumption.
“You need to know what you’re picking,” he said.
His favorite way to prepare them: boil with salt pork and serve with a little vinegar and butter.
For some, including Tim Flights of Carrabassett Valley, the taste of fiddleheads is an acquired one. Stopping Tuesday for a couple of pounds, he said he didn’t like them as a child but acquired the taste an adult. He likes to steam them and use a little olive oil and garlic. They are full of iron. The water darkens as they cook, due to the iron, Buckley said.
Growing up on a potato farm in Mars Hill, Buckley said he was accustomed to enjoying nature’s bounty, the fruits of the season.
“I feel sorry for young kids today growing up on pizza and fast foods,” he said.
When he was a kid, trips to stores were rare. Freezer sections were only for ice cream. Farmers grew their own crops and raised animals for meat.
Struggling to keep the family potato business going on land inherited from an allotment of 500 acres given to a grandfather who served in the Civil War, Buckley as a younger man moved to the Franklin County area to work in the Rumford paper mill. Now retired, he keeps a few animals, mostly as pets, and thinks about returning to the family land in Mars Hill. Growing potatoes is a lot of work, but he loves it, he said.
For now, he’s busy as customers pull in for a few pounds of fiddleheads, sold at $2.75 a pound. He’ll be there until the season passes, he said.
Fiddleheads are the young coiled leaves of the ostrich fern.
About an inch in diameter, they can be identified by the brown, papery, scale-like covering on the uncoiled fern and the deep U-shaped groove on the inside of the fern stem.
Look for ostrich ferns on the banks of rivers, streams and brooks in April and May.
Harvest as soon as they are an inch or two above the ground. Carefully brush off and remove the papery brown scales.
Thoroughly wash fiddleheads several times until the wash water appears clean. Then bring a small amount of lightly salted water to a boil, add washed fiddleheads and cook them at a steady boil for 10 minutes. You can also wash thoroughly and steam for 20 minutes.
Serve at once with melted butter or vinegar. The sooner they are eaten, the more delicate their flavor. They may be served, like asparagus, on toast. Cooked, chilled fiddleheads can be also served as a salad with an onion and vinegar dressing.
Remember to keep fiddleheads refrigerated until you are ready to cook or serve them.
Calories per serving (1/2 cup): 35
Total fat: 0
Dietary fiber: 7 grams
Sugars: 1 gram
Protein: 2 grams
Source: University of Maine Cooperative Extension