Spring has finally sprung! Yay.
Believe it or not, two weeks ago, there were still patches of snow in the woods. Even a couple of days ago while François was scouting his first fiddleheads in swampland, there wasn’t much happening in the forest. But in no time, the telltale whiff of garlic and crinkleroot came wafting above that of fresh dirt as I strolled down the path to the kitchen. That day, I knew François was out there somewhere on his hands and knees if he wasn’t in his bootsuit chasing fiddleheads..
Venturing out back, and then to the neighbouring maple grove, sure enough, there were promising tufts of green everywhere.. Ramp leaves shooting up in gangs, alongside a smattering of baby trout lily, the odd cluster of fiddleheads, and striking (but inedible) trilles. Brushing aside the dead leaves around the ramps, there was lots more to be found – the first crinkleroot, wild ginger, more ramps, ulvulaire, spring beauty and more..
Right around the table champêtre, the orpin (live forever) is now popping up, the dandelion is in full force, still baby primo and actually edible this year (all the rain?), and there’s the miniature first daisy, my ‘coup de coeur’. Violet, bee balm and garlic mustard are showing signs of life, edible leaves soon, which means the linden, the flowers, and the next slideshow is not so far off. Spring was late, but I bet summer will not be. Even if it snowed in the Laurentians last night.
In any case, within days, there will be a true bounty of spring greens, fixings for a meslun that explodes with flavour – providing that jolt of fresh, assertive green vitamin crunch our bodies crave after a long winter. A Green flavour boost that imported Romaine cannot deliver.
For the month of May, this forest is our pantry, and salad has to be on the menu. It is François’ favourite time of year because of the fiddlehead tradition, but also for the abundance of different edibles all growing together. Nothing beats the smell of the woods at this time of year either. It’s not all about mushrooms after all.
Of course, there is the squadron of female pickers who show up in spring, those patient enough to do the meticulous hand work that the sprouts and flowers demand. So different from the hardy gang of rough and tough beer swilling fiddlehead pickers. And trust me, this season, you have to be built strong to be doing fiddleheads, a girl my size would be swept away with the swollen river getting to the sweet spots. François skirts back and forth, the king of fiddleheads and part of the motley crew, but equally adept and at peace with the girls clipping and coddling roots and shoots, in there with his deceptively delicate man hands and feminine sensibility. It is in Spring that I see his most tender side, and his fiercest too, in terms of stamina. Out foraging in the rain, to and fro from the market, washing all those fiddleheads at the end of every long day...
It is busy yes, but smooth splendor for two weeks at least.. Picking in the same few spots. Silence apart from chirping birds. When the foliage comes in, all this dies and we move on. Then other things arrive in season, but dispersed, unpredictable, one thing at a time all over the place, so much prospecting, running around the province... A whole new kind of Hectic. Mushrooms are much more complicated still.
I wish I could seize a spring moment, capture it fully, remember it perfectly all year.. More than a picture or caption or singular thought, but that magical fresh feeling - the energy and excitement inhabiting everyone; the scents, the tastes, and hopes for the season; the invigorating comfort of communing with nature again, seeing and eating green again.
From one squat stance, reaching in all directions, with a few careful handfuls, you have the makings of a tableau or a lunch. With a half dozen plants, you have a combination of contrasting textures, notes of sweet to offset the pleasantly bitter, as well as a spectrum of fruity, floral, green and peppery aromas.. Ultimately a salad that is exciting for the palate, soul and body, loaded with iron, vitamins, minerals protein and antioxidants.. that tastes like spring!
Trout lily(cantaloupe), live-forever (snow peas), daisy (sweet licorice), Dandelion (bitter), Ulvulaire (walnut), crinkleroot leaves (mustard and horseradish), and tender Spring beauty (finesse)..
All you need is a good cold-pressed oil and some salt for absolute deliciousness. As a side, that’s fine, but these greens can definitely stand up to a punchy vinaigrette too. A touch of sweet to counter the bitter/astringent is often a good idea. I make a wild ‘chimichurri’ that works well, as does a wild berry vinaigrette, or aged balsamic or sherry vinegar based vinaigrette. I like to chop up some ramp leaves and any fresh herbs that are kicking around, especially dill, parsley and chives. Scallions are essential. Nut oil or nuts also make a good addition. Meat, meat drippings and fat all marry well, softening the wild greens, a marriage made in heaven. The smallest hit of umami in the form of bacon, smoked duck or cheese shavings will do the trick, taking healthy green salad to full-on gourmet entrée. Topped with shrimp or grilled meat, you have dinner.
Day lily sprouts can be thrown in too, but I like to treat them as a vegetable on their own– delicately floral and leek like, with a hint of truffle – delicious sliced thin and served raw in a light vinaigrette, or simply wilted in beurre montée. With fish, poultry, mushrooms..
Growing in the same woodland, scattered among the spring greens are two precious roots, easily identified by their leaves at this time of year. Feeling down the stem, a pencil thin root is revealed, linked to a larger network underground, quite extensive depending on the age. We only snap off the first link and sprout, leaving the rest behind, which seems to stimulate the plant if anything. For the record, François does not rip out any plants by the roots. Across the board, we have a healthy supply every year in the same locations François has been tending to for 10-40 years.
First there’s François’ family favourite (and now mine too) - Crinkleroot.. With its hearty bite of mustard-meets-horseradish, it is nutty and peppery, very arugula like; both the greens and the roots are widely used in my kitchen.. In chopped salads, sandwiches, condiments and sauces, with tomatoes, cheese, seafood and steak.
Then there is Wild Ginger- pungent like ginger-root but incredibly aromatic, floral and fresh smelling, exactly like the flavour of soap gum (Thrills), but cleaner, more natural tasting. Sounds gross maybe, an acquired taste not unlike coriander or saffron, but it is amazing to cook with in both savoury and sweet, when keeping it subtle. I use it fresh, I pickle it, I make it into mustard, paste, syrup and sugar – all handy ingredients to add wild ginger zing to preparations in different ways year-round. This week it’s in an Asian inspired vinaigrette for shrimp and fiddlehead salad; next week it will be with chocolate in dessert
Of course, among the spring things, I cannot not mention fiddleheads more than in passing. A week into the season, we have a thousand pounds in our cooler, with thousands to come in still. We have a ton on the property, but it is a shitload of work. François was one of the first to put these on the market and takes great pride in it. I will be serving them in a myriad of ways fresh for weeks to come. Some will get put up, some pickled, most sold at the market.
I prefer them cooked and served hot with bacon or something meaty, but early season, I am happy to eat them in salads with some crunch. After washing them well, I blanch them for 5 min in lots of water and either reheat to serve warm or toss in vinaigrette.
So many people think fiddleheads are touchy or dangerous. The Cdn and Que governments say you should cook them for 15 minutes or 10-12 by steam due to some unidentified toxin. No one seems to know what this toxin is but affirm that it is water solvent. Yet other govt agencies have tested fiddleheads and not found any inherent toxin even raw. All cases of stomach upsets (very few) came from uncooked fiddleheads from unknown sources. (Probably polluted and improperly washed and cooked). We all agree that they should be cooked (they aren’t good raw anyway). To be safe, just wash well, use lots of water, and cook them through, no straight sauteeing. These guidelines seem excessive, but I suppose they are conservative to protect every idiot, scenario and fiddlehead out there. Personally, I believe 5 minutes in lots of water is sufficient with fresh fiddleheads from a reliable source. In previous years, I decided that with small batches when I wanted to conserve the most green and crunch, blanching twice for less total time optimized color, texture with respect to maximum cooking and water flushing. But now, I don’t bother. I don’t care about ‘aldente green’ like I used to. For flavour, more is better with fiddleheads.. But quand même, not 15 min!