Do you ever have those things in your life that seem unattainable or mysterious. Things that you’ve heard or read about and which you would truly like to see or experience but that seem impossible or simply out of reach. I have lots of them – some are birds that I think I will never see because they are too rare or too far distant – some are foods that are too exotic, expensive or elusive to ever grace my Wisconsin table – some are places that seem too distant or exotic for me to ever visit.
On a recent birding trip to New Brunswick, Canada (Grand Manan Island to be specific) I was graced by two such elusive experiences from my list.
One was the Northern Fulmar. Fulmars are birds of the open ocean. They must come to land to nest somewhere (probably in the far, far northern reaches of the Atlantic but generally to see them you have to be lucky and somewhere out at sea.
Part of the birding trip – organized by Road Scholar – was a boat trip to look for pelagic birds. Our target, among other possibilities, was the Atlantic Puffin. Jeanne and I have seen puffins before, in Maine, but those were a colony that had taken up residence on very small island that supported a lighthouse. This time we were looking for them on the open ocean. To help us (the birders) have a chance to see some of these elusive birds they (the boat’s crew) were chumming the waters with small bits of herring. The herring attracts gulls, lots of gulls. The gulls attract other birds that might also want in on the free snacks.
Chumming with cut herring to attract seabirds
Well, we didn’t have much luck. Someone (not me) eventually saw a puffin fly across the bow of the boat but none of the rest of us, in the rear of the boat, saw it. But suddenly, Heather drew our attention to a bird that was smaller than the dozens of gulls wheeling about the boat trying to snatch a piece of chum. Those more versed in seabirds than Jeanne or I recognized it as a Northern Fulmar. Fulmars are part of a group of birds called tube-noses. Because they spend virtually their entire life at sea, they have no access to fresh water. The tubes that sit atop their bills are part of an adaptation to excrete salt from their bodies. Apparently they sort of sneeze and a salty concentrate is expelled out of the tube.
Well, Fulmars aren’t one of those pretty birds but they are pretty cool, with the salt adaptation and the fact that it’s nearly impossible to see them anywhere but out at sea. It was a lifer for Jeanne and me.
Another lifer for us were fiddle-head ferns. Fiddle-heads are the new shoots of Ostrich (and other) ferns – spiraling curls of fresh growth that appear for a very short time in early spring. The look like the volute ends of violins, hence the “fiddle-head” name. I’ve read about them in many cookbooks and foodie essays but I’ve never seen them for sale anywhere. From what I can gather, most people who eat them forage for them and keep and eat what they gather. On our trip we encountered fiddle-heads not once, not twice, not three times, but four different times. Woo-hoo!
Fiddle-head Ferns (original image by Tammy Strobel)
First we found them on the menu of a gastro-pub in St. John, NB, called the St. John Ale House that went by the acronym of SJAH, which I kept seeing but thought was the name of an Indian or East-Asian restaurant. The fiddle-heads at SJAH were on the appetizer menu as a deep-fired small plate. We ordered them. They were good but, frankly, I wasn’t all that excited by them. They were OK. They might have been frozen and cooked as ordered and the breading got in the way of tasting the fiddle-heads themselves, as is often the case with deep-fried foods. But I was glad I ordered them.
Fried Fiddle-head Ferns at the St. John Ale House
The next two times, they were served steamed as a vegetable side for dinner at the Marathon Inn, where we were staying during our trip. At the Inn, there was no menu to speak of, just a choice each morning of either seafood or non-seafood entree – everything else was prix fixe. Well, let me tell you, fresh and freshly cooked fiddle-heads are delicious – slightly nutty, kind of like a mild asparagus. The second time the fiddle heads were served at the Inn, my liking for them preceded me and I was offered an extra portion from a fellow diner who didn’t share my appreciation for them. Thank you Al.
The fourth time we encountered them on our trip was back in St. John when we had a layover before our flight home. To pass some time we went to the large City Market in the old up-town section of St. John. The market dates from 1830 although the building only dates from 1876. The market was a varied mix of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, prepared foods and arts and crafts. And, low and behold, one of the vegetable vendors had fresh fiddle-heads for C$4.00 per pound. A pound of fiddle-heads is a sizable bag maybe as large as a medium cantaloupe. More fiddle-heads in one place than I had ever seen. Unfortunately, US Customs frowns on bringing fresh produce across the border so I had to leave New Brunswick empty handed but with my head and palette satisfied that I had ticked off one more experience from my elusive list.