May in Maine offers two outdoor traditions that yield a taste treat combination available few other places in the world. During a few rare weeks of each year, local sportsmen can catch a couple of brook trout, pick a hat full of fiddleheads, and a few hours later enjoy a fish and fern taste treat fit for a king.
Trout fishing can be enjoyed all summer, but prime fiddlehead season is now, although a few spring showers may give locals an extra week to find ferns and pick a few more for the freezer.
The ostrich fern was known and named in 1753, but didn’t receive its botanical name matecia until over 100 years later. These regional delicacies earned the name fiddlehead from their shape that resembles the tuning end of a fiddle. These perennials abound from the east coast of Virginia northward across New England, Canada and Alaska and down into the U.S. again as far as Iowa and Missouri. Water and soil conditions in Maine, particularly Aroostook County, assure a bumper crop every spring.
Fiddleheads grow rapidly in the wild and their peak picking time is within three or four days of each crown’s appearance. Once the tightly wound heads begin to unfurl they are past prime in taste and texture, so they should be ignored. Fiddleheads are best harvested when they are 2 to 6 inches high by pinching off the top 3 inches of the plant, which is the most tender when young. Never pick the plant with the roots, or double pick spring growth, as permanent damage to the plant will occur.
Since fiddleheads prosper in the dank, rich earth along brooks and streams, often in areas flooded by high water during the freshet, shrewd sportsmen take advantage of the opportunity to fish and pick ferns during the same outing. The delicate flavor of fresh, pink-fleshed brook trout complemented by the savory taste of new fiddleheads is a combination steeped with heritage and old family recipes. Preparations can be as simple as frying the fish and boiling the greens or a connoisseur’s recipe. Cooking methods aside, pink and green is a wonderful spring taste treat.
Sure bets for fish and fiddleheads during the next few weeks include the Meduxnekeag from Monticello to Houlton, the Prestile Stream, the Aroostook River, Three Brooks in Blaine and Whitney Brook in Bridgewater. All of these streams are simple to locate and near dozens of towns. Avoid the crowds and overused spots by getting away from the main roads. The further one is willing to walk, the more productive the trout pools and fiddlehead flats will be.
Outdoorsmen with access to a small boat or canoe can find a spot with a short boat ride. Some of the least accessible and most productive spots to pick a bucket of tasty ferns are islands in local rivers and streams. Some fishermen troll their way to and from favorite islands, while others wade and cast eddies and backwaters where trout often lay up during high water conditions. I know of two industrious anglers who cast out bait and bobber rigs, prop the pole on a stick and keep an eye on it while picking fiddleheads nearby.
No matter how you get the ingredients, the meal is bound to be delicious. In case you don’t have a special method of preparing brook trout or fiddlehead greens, perhaps one of these recipes will tempt your taste buds.
Grilled Herbed Trout
3-6 brook trout (8-10 inches)
1/2 cup soft margarine or butter
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup lime juice
4 green onions, chopped
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 tsp basil
1/2 tsp chervil
1/2 tsp tarragon
1/2 tsp salt and pepper
Clean and behead trout, rinse and pat dry with paper towel. Lay trout on a greased hinged grill and salt and pepper inside cavity. Mix all of the ingredients together (melting butter if necessary) and brush each side of trout thoroughly.
Close and lock grill and suspend 4-6 inches over a charcoal or gas grill, or 10-12 inches over coals of an open fire. Turn the handheld grill rack every two minutes, basting fish each time, and grill for 10 minutes or until the fish flakes when fork tested.
Fiddleheads with Fried Bread Crumbs
1 cup clarified unsalted butter
6 tbsp hard bread crumbs
1 lb fiddleheads, cleaned and blanched
1/2 tsp chopped garlic
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp unsalted butter
Heat the clarified butter and add the garlic and bread crumbs. Sauté until the bread crumbs are golden brown and then season with a bit of salt and pepper. Now sauté the fiddleheads in 2 tablespoons of butter until they are hot. Toss the bread crumbs and fiddleheads together in a salad bowl and check for proper seasoning. Serve immediately.
There are many rites of spring, but few so steeped with tradition, not to mention fine taste, as fiddleheading. From the sportsmen’s angle, it’s a good excuse to get out fishing for a while, and the final reward will be at the dinner table.