Fiddleheads are the common name for the uncurled, tightly wound fronds of the White Ostrich Fern. They’re picked when still crouched close to the ground, and eaten with relish (not the condiment — the emotion, although I wouldn’t rule out the condiment, I suppose) by a whole lot of people who like to eat things that just came from the forest floor. Fiddleheads have a short season, just about two weeks, so diners who want them expertly prepared either have to forage them themselves and learn how to cook them, find a grocer that carries them, or find a restaurant that will work to creatively present them while preserving their natural herbaceous and asparagus-like qualities.
Or, you could have shelled out a comparatively cheap $15 for a ticket to Fiddlefest 2005, presented by Slow Food Portland. If you missed it, not to worry. Slow Food Portland will have your back with like-minded events all year round.
The Portland Maine Convivium of Slow Food USA, which itself is a sub-chapter of Slow Food International, have taken on the task of promoting the ideals of the world-wide group to a local audience. The first Slow Food group was founded in 1986 in Barolo, Italy, by Carlo Petrini. Troubled by the growing number of mass-marketed foods, and the diminishing number of local farms, shops, and varietals, he and a small group of friends began to promote the act of choosing to buy local and cook with a bit more heart. Slow Food International was founded in Paris in 1989, and created a springboard for a world-wide movement, which now has over 80,000 members. Slow Food USA, based in Brooklyn, oversees 140 local groups, one of which is the Slow Food Convivium here is Portland; there is another based in Rockland.
According to Slow Food USA’s Web site, the coalition is "dedicated to supporting and celebrating the food traditions of North America," and "believes that pleasure and quality in everyday life can be achieved by slowing down, respecting the convivial traditions of the table, and celebrating the diversity of the earth’s bounty." The nice thing about the movement is that it is non-judgmental as to the type of food prepared — unless it is out of a box. A pan of homemade macaroni and cheese topped with breadcrumbs, eaten with a friend and a bottle of beer, is looked upon as just as important as springing for a $40-a-plate meal at a restaurant that supports local farmers. Buy local, cook it at home, and enjoy it with friends or family.
Back to Fiddleheads. In keeping with the goals of the international effort, Slow Food Portland put on a celebration of one of the first foraged greens of the season. Held at the Gilsland Farm Environmental Center in Falmouth, the celebration went off spectacularly. Crowds showed up to listen to fiddle music and convene with like-minded slow-foodies, but most of all they showed up because some of the best chefs in the area were there to prepare the greens the best way they know how. The names are all familiar to those who keep track of the cooks who take the time to buy local and prepare carefully: Sam Hayward, of Fore Street, prepared a Fiddlehead Chowder topped with another foraged green, Soloman’s Seal. Carl Deuben, sous-chef at Hugo’s, was busy tempura-frying pickled fiddleheads and serving them with Vichyssoise with ramp puree. The folks from Bandaloop, W. Scott and Bridgette Lee, presented a sherry-laced fiddlehead and spring corn soup. And Jim Ameral, of Borealis Breads, served fiddlehead foccacia.
The best presentations, however, were those that allowed the fiddleheads to speak for themselves; that is, those that kept it as simple as possible. Chef Lee Skawinski’s sautéed fiddleheads with pancetta were memorable, as was the Chebeauge Island Inn’s offering, Chef Alan Fisher’s steamed fiddleheads with a surprisingly subtle horseradish, scallion, and mint sauce. Also notable was Chef Oliver Outterbridge’s parmesan polenta sandwiches with fava bean puree. No fiddleheads in the title, but a blanched curl fern graced the top of each offering. Absolutely the tops, though, was Chef Lucien Berg’s vibrant marmalade of spring fiddleheads on crostini — a fantastic combination of manipulated presentation and the frond’s natural flavors. Though full, I had a few.
Then again, the Slow Food Portland Convivium would be just as happy to know that you, the reader, took the time to go to the Whole Grocer or Wild Oats or wherever you can find fiddleheads and prepared them for yourself and a guest. It’s not rocket science to prepare them well; one might suggest that those who try to complicate fiddleheads are doomed to fail. Give them a few soaks and rinses in cold water to remove any remaining grit from the ground. Steam them, or blanch them in salted boiling water for a few minutes, until they turn bright green. Shock them in cold water to preserve the color, and then before serving, lightly sauté in garlic butter.
Slow food doesn’t have to be complicated, or fancy, or even, strangely, time-consuming. But odds are, if you get into the swing of it, you’ll want to spend more and more time in the kitchen with fresh ingredients and friends, taking your time shucking corn or boiling beans, and supporting an important movement just by doing so.
Andy King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Slow Food Portland, go to www.slowfoodportland.org; for more information on Slow Food USA, go to www.slowfoodusa.org.