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Chef Nick Chindamo grew up in Northern Ontario and now lives on PEI. A foraging guide, he invites you to immerse yourself in nature, learning about the wonders of wild food and how to live alongside our ecology. This is how Nick forages for fiddleheads … like a Saltscaper.

“I used to work as a chef in high-end restaurants, but now I work adjacent to the restaurant business and spend my days foraging for amazing ingredients for fine dining kitchens. I have been blessed with a continuity of interests: food and nature.

I think about ingredients to a weird level. When I am using an ingredient, I want to know everything about it. I want to know what plant family it belongs to, how it grows, how its environment changes, and how it tastes
different at different times of harvesting. I still work in food but differently.
Here on PEI, I work in wild food. I teach people about wild food, how cooks can use wild food, and how to identify plants that are essentially in our own backyard.

I used to think that fiddleheads were the first wild food that used to emerge from the earth in the spring. I no longer think that way. When I was a more novice forager, I would flock to the river valleys looking for those first signs of ostrich fern, the tiny coils bound tight and covered in papery bract. I would go back and forth for days looking for the first ones to appear. I was looking for a specific thing. Little did I know that I was walking right past so many other edible plants that are ready before or at the same time as fiddleheads.

Illustrations by Briana Corr Scott

Ostrich fern is the one that most people are looking for. On the East Coast, their appearance usually lines up with the running of smelts or the start of trout season. Fiddleheads mature irregularly. For several weeks in spring, follow the river valleys and you will find copious amounts of fiddleheads. It’s a fun harvest.

Whether it’s fiddleheads or any other plant you are foraging for, it’s important that you pay attention to what is happening in the environment around you. I started a phenology calendar, and at the end of each day to write about the things that I notice in nature — we had lots of rain today, smelts were running in the river, the blue jays are hatching, the fiddleheads came up. The following year, go back and check what was happening in nature on or around the same time, and compare. This way you really get to notice what is happening in your environment. Phenology is just paying attention to nature.

If you are new to foraging and just want to find fiddleheads, maybe for the first year find them and take notice of when they first appear, how they grow, and how they look when they die off. Fiddleheads look like brown feathers when they die off, and they produce spores like mushrooms do, not seeds, to reproduce.

If you are going to pick them, make sure that you are picking the right type of plant. Young ostrich fern fiddleheads have a brown papery covering that helps keeps them bound tight. The stem also is very shiny and has a deep groove running down the centre. Most people pick them when they are only a few inches tall, but you can eat them at various lengths; they just might taste a little different.

It’s important to learn what is edible and what is not, but there are more things out there that are good and safe to eat than most might imagine. Our colonized food system is not used to wild food. I encourage people to refer to Indigenous literature to really understand the edibility of plants and to start to learn more about what it means to live alongside the ecology and not live against it. A lot of knowledge was lost when there was a push for the convenience food system that emerged in the 1940s and ‘50s.

My year of foraging progresses much as my life has progressed. When I am on the West River in the early spring and the canopy of massive fir trees and slippery elms are above me, it feels very much like Ontario. But as the seasons progress and I follow the river further and further to where the river empties out to the Atlantic, it looks more like a salt scape. The closer I get to the coast I know where I live, where I belong: Prince Edward Island.” 

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