Friday, 7 May 2010

A Visit to Nor-Cliff Farms

When we headed down to the Niagara Peninsula last Tuesday the other place we went, besides Grimo Nut Nursery was to Nor-Cliff Farms. Nor-Cliff is not your average farm.

Here's one of their "fields". Yes, it's basically the edge of a bog; the Wainfleet bog to be precise. The locals were amused when "folks from the city" bought this farm, but in fact they knew what they were doing - their crop is fiddleheads. Fiddleheads, for those unfamiliar with them, are a traditional foraged spring-time treat in eastern Canada. They are the tightly curled frond buds of the Osterich fern (matteuccia struthiopteris), which grows in damp, somewhat shaded places. They were gratefully gathered by first nations tribes and then by settlers to eastern Canada as one of the first green vegetables of spring, and they are still very popular especially in New Brunswick and Quebec.

Another view of the "farmland". I was given a tour by Nina DiLorenzo, one of the partners who own NorCliff Farms, who told me that they farm 40 acres of fiddleheads here. (Nick Secord, the main partner was in Quebec for the harvest.) This is a newish venture, started in 2007, and only a small part of NorCliff farms operations. Most of their fiddleheads are wild harvested in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, from land they lease and own, and they have a freezing plant in Asbestos, Quebec. This is their first attempt at actually growing fiddleheads deliberately, although NorCliff Farms has been harvesting and selling fiddleheads since 1974.

The fiddleheads shown above and below are at the right stage to be picked. They start as tight, hard brown nubbins in a circle around the crown of the plant, and as they rise they begin to loosen and unfurl. They should be picked when they have risen a little, but are still quite tightly furled and are a bright fresh green. Because they start so early in the spring, frost damage must be watched for and avoided. Once the leaves begin to unfold, the fronds are too mature to eat. The fiddleheads are not cut off, but carefully broken off to minimize oxidization.

More fiddleheads ready to pick. Only about a third of the fiddleheads should be picked from the plant, in order to keep the plant healthy. Nina recounted how they hired people to plant the young ferns by the bag, with instructions that they should be planted out in rows, as with most crops. They later discovered, to their dismay, that many of them had been shoved into the ground in large clumps. It all worked out though; it turns out that fiddleheads are gregarious and much prefer to grow that way. The tight clumps of ferns will also keep other plants from encroaching much on their territory.

These ostrich ferns were in the garden of the house and were well past the stage for picking. You can get some idea of what large and attractive ferns they will be during the summer season, and you can see some of the dried fronds from last year as well.

Above is a package of Nor-Cliff Farms frozen fiddleheads, so they are available all year. However, from mid April to early June is the prime time for fresh fiddleheads. They are picked in widely seperate places depending on the point in the season. I got a glimpse of the logistical problems involved in ensuring a smooth supply of fiddleheads the day I was there, as Nina scrambled to find a replacement truck to pick up the harvested fiddleheads for one which had cancelled. It must all be a little ad-hoc as the harvest moves around so much. Still, you will find fresh fiddleheads in many Canadian grocery stores at this time of year, as you could since 1974 when Nick Secord got started, somewhat by accident. He wanted to go fishing on a rather exclusive river; his friend, who owned a local Dominion store could get him there. In exchange, he wanted fiddleheads for his grocery store. Nick started supplying Dominion, and the rest is history. I used to shop at Dominion, and it's amusing to think that I was buying Nick and Nina's fiddleheads years ago.

So, once you have some fiddleheads, what should you do with them? You should definitely cook them. They have a delicate yet distinctive flavour and are excellent served simply steamed of boiled for 8-10 minutes, and topped with a dab of butter. If you boil them, it's best to change the water after a few minutes. The water they cook in will turn brown; that's normal and caused by their iron content, but the cooked fiddleheads should be tender and still bright green. Be sure to remove any of the papery brown membrane that may cling to the fiddleheads before cooking. Also, the stems may have darkened (oxidized) at the broken ends and should just be trimmed to remove this. Keep them stored in icy cold water in the fridge. They will keep for up to 2 weeks this way, if freshly picked. Don't forget to check under "fiddleheads" in the side index for recipes. There's only two there at the moment, but more should show up this spring.

Fiddleheads were once regarded as an excellent spring tonic, and they should be still; they contain twice the antioxidants of blueberries, as much vitamin C as spinach, and are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Like most vegetables, they are low in sodium and high in fibre. This information comes from recent research by the Atlantic Food & Horticulture Research Centre in Nova Scotia, where more research into fiddleheads nutritional profile are underway.

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