Near the town where I grew up, there was a wooded area known as the “Pine Hills”, now called the “Sandy Hills Pinery.” Unusually for southern Ontario, where clay soil predominates, this land was sandy so the government bought the land and planted it with red pine to control erosion. When I was little, on one side of the road the pine trees had reached a considerable height and the forest floor was clearing beneath it; on the other side, the trees were younger and the bush was dense.
My maternal grandfather was a forager — that is, someone who could walk through the woods and harvest edible bits from the forest floor. His specialty was mushrooms. He knew, somehow, which were the tasty morsels and which were the poisonous ones. He died when I was in grade school (cancer, not a bad bout of mushrooms) and I have clear memories of those walking trips in the Pine Hills, where edible fungi proliferated.
Knowledge of what edibles forests provide certainly was passed from generation to generation among Canada’s indigenous peoples. And with renewed awareness and interest about eating locally sourced foods, that kind of harvesting of forest-grown edibles is gaining popularity more widely across the country.
An Ontario foraging guide lists fiddleheads as one of the top 10 edibles to forage from wild woods, along with maple (tree) blossoms, wild leeks, cattails, chanterelle mushrooms, stinging nettle, wild mint, dandelion and wild strawberries.
Most are spring delicacies that emerge after a long winter: In the Maritime province of New Brunswick, fiddleheads — the coiled-up tip of what eventually would roll out to be an Ostrich Fern leaf — have long been popular and now are starting to be grown on commercial farms.
Fiddleheads are tricky to prepare safely, a Canadian government website sternly warns us. Cases of food poisoning from raw or under-cooked fiddleheads have been reported so we are instructed to wash (and wash and wash) the fiddleheads, then boil them for 15 minutes before sautéeing or baking them. I confess I’ve been lax on this: when I’ve found fiddleheads at a farmers’ market, I’ve tended just to sauté them directly on butter with perhaps a bit of wine, vinegar or water dashed in. The Ontario Woodlot Association also gives harvesting and cooking tips. The safety experts’ 15 minutes of boiling will give you rather mushy fiddleheads; one New Brunswick recipe site suggests that seven minutes leaves them crisp-tender, after which you give them a quick sauté with butter for flavour.
Delicacy and respect is required if one’s going to tramp about the woods to gather your vegetables: Newbies are well advised to learn from experts before heading out on their own lest they a) destroy plants by stepping on things b) over-harvest, thereby ruining next year’s growth and c) pick something poisonous. Also, it’s important to respect private property, waterways that may not be safe, and all other manners of hazards that nature can provide.
Puck’s Plenty near Stratford, Ontario is carving out a niche business educating people about the foods the forests provide in the spring, summer, and fall. Picked by Travel + Leisure Magazine as one of 10 recommended places in an article about food foraging around the world, Puck’s Plenty leads walking tours, organizes feasts using forest produce (partnering with local restaurants), and even is leading a “wood nettle beer workshop”. The name derives from the character Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a sprite who lives in the forest with his master Oberon.
Fiddlehead season is almost as quick and ephemeral as Puck: the fern coils stay wound for a week, at most, before they start unfurling into leaves. These days we have access to fresh greens year-round, whether grown locally in greenhouses or shipped from other continents. Eating fiddleheads in their fleeting season captures the pleasure people got years ago when they could finally harvest and enjoy the first greens pushing up through the forest floor after a long, grey Canadian winter.
Main photo: Kendal Donahue