Foraging for fiddleheads? Heed the advice of experts for your health and taste buds

As foodies across Canada pillage their grocery store produce sections for the last remaining fiddleheads of the season, Health Canada reminds consumers to take precautions when preparing the popular delicacy: remove the oxidized brown husks, wash them several times in cold water, then boil them in water for 15 minutes to avoid illness.

The fiddlehead season is "fast and furious," says Nina Secord who, with her husband Nick, owns Norcliff Farms, North America's only fiddlehead farm, based in Port Colborne, Ontario. When the weather is predictable, antioxidant-rich fiddleheads, which are native to New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, are picked from the third week of April to the first week of June.

But despite recent warnings by Toronto Public Health that fiddleheads may have caused illness in several Toronto residents, Secord says she doesn't see the connection.

"There have been no studies done regarding toxins and the relationship with fiddleheads," she maintains.

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Yet Health Canada maintains there have been a number of outbreaks of foodborne illness from eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads in Canada and the United States since 1994.

"I've just had a certificate of analysis done of our fiddleheads," Secord says. "We actually sent them to a lab and it showed totally clear of e-coli … and many other different types of bacteria."

Like any other vegetable, she says, consumers should always wash fiddleheads well because who knows who or what may have touched them. And she agrees with boiling them, too, but more for taste than anything else.

"Truthfully, they are better cooked," she says.

And how does a fiddlehead expert prepare this gourmet treat?

"I like them simple with a little bit of olive oil and garlic," she says. "And because I'm Italian, I always throw a little bit of Parmesan cheese."

"The taste is so unusual and so unique it's like a cross between broccoli and asparagus. "

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Fiddleheads tend to absorb whatever spice you mix in with them, so if you were to add a touch of curry powder, they would take on a curry flavour, she explains. The same would be true for garlic, butter, salt and pepper.

Health Canada hails fiddleheads as a great source of dietary fibre, vitamins A and C, niacin, potassium, phosphorous, iron, and magnesium.

"The fiddlehead's total antioxidant activity is twice that of blueberries," says Agri-Food Canada scientist Dr. John DeLong.

Canadian Gardening says if you're interested in hunting down your own wild fiddleheads, be sure to venture out with an expert forager who knows what to look for and the differences between fern plants.

"Got a jungle of ferns in your garden? Be sure you know what grows outside your own back door before you pick. Only the ostrich fern (matteuccia struthiopteris) is edible," says the site.

Watch the video below for a unique twist on potato salad with purple potatoes and chorizo.