L.E. (“Monty”) Barrett and Lin Diket grew up together in Hallowell, Maine, and now the childhood friends have teamed up to create books celebrating the wild foods foraged in their woods. Barrett and Diket, both 64, just put out their first title, “Fiddle Mainia: Maine’s Organic Edible Fern,” written by Barrett and photographed by Diket. The two reconnected when Barrett, who had served as an Army colonel for many years, returned to Maine to write poetry and fiction. “This is a nostalgic mission,” he says. “We want to put some life into this wild, edible plant.”
The tightly rolled green shoots of the ostrich fern (or matteuccia struthiopteris) are currently making their brief annual appearance. “Fiddleheads are something people wait for because it’s the mark of real spring,” Barrett says. “They see it also as a natural tonic that they look forward to eating. The Native Americans felt that way too — that it cleansed their blood from the winter.” The authors trace the global appreciation with 125 recipes that use fiddleheads in everything from stews to cookies. Among the favorites are Diket’s fiddlehead pie, a quiche-like dish that he likes to make with Vermont cheddar. Next up for the pair: books on Maine wild blueberries and dandelions.
Q. Is New England unique in our appreciation of the fern?
Barrett The ostrich fern is found throughout the world. Fiddleheads are eaten in China and Japan. Hawaiians have a relative of ostrich fern that they eat. Fiddleheads are eaten a lot throughout New England and the northern tier — Alaska, Oregon, and Washington State. They have become iconic here for lots of reasons, but the main reason is that the native population was eating fiddleheads when the first settlers came.
Q. How did our harsh winter affect the crop?
Barrett We’re about to go into a bumper year. The weather has been absolutely perfect for fiddleheads. You have sustained cool days and a long winter with lots of snow. The season starts in Boston, Rhode Island, and southern New Hampshire first, and it migrates all the way up the coast and into northern Maine and Canada. In Maine, the season will go into June, with processing on the islands off the coast. The season is over and done with in any one area within a two-week period.
Q. What kind of processing are they doing?
Barrett If you blanch them, then freeze them, you can keep them for over a year and they’re fine.
Diket I think one of the mistakes people make is that they don’t blanch them. I can’t express how critical that is. Cook them up to eight minutes to kill the bacteria they carry and shock them with ice water.
Q. How does the taste of fiddleheads work in the many different recipes you’ve created?
Barrett Most people will tell you they have a sort of nutty taste, more like asparagus. A lot of people don’t eat them because they think they’re going to be ferny smelling. It goes with things really well. If you make ice cream with it, it’s going to taste like green tea ice cream. If you bake it in a meatloaf or a quiche you would think it’s asparagus.
Q. What’s your favorite preparation?
Barrett Everyone agrees to steam them. Steam long enough that they’re still crisp, put on some butter, salt, and balsamic.
Diket I would agree with steaming if you’re having them as a side dish. I like sauteing fiddleheads in the frying pan with some olive oil and garlic. I also make fiddlehead pie.
Q. Is there a danger that fiddleheads are becoming too popular?
Barrett Fiddleheads are showing up on the menus of the best restaurants in the country. I think they’re going to be year-round in the future. More and more cooks are putting them with trout and putting them inside different dishes.
Q. What about foragers who go looking for them?
Diket People who pick themselves tend to be ones who are newcomers to fiddleheads and don’t know that if you pick more than half the bulb, you won’t have more next year.
Barrett You have to be cautious when you’re out there. It’s always safer to buy them.