April 29, 2012

A fresh approach to the fiddlehead

By DAVID F. ROBINSON Morning Sentinel

WILTON -- An army of fiddlehead pickers has spread across central Maine early each morning for the past few weeks. They scour streams and riverbanks and fill onion sacks with the tiny curlicue ferns, named for their resemblance to a fiddle's head.

click image to enlarge

FRESH GREENS: Barb Pelletier packs boxes of fresh fiddleheads after the cleaning process at W.S. Wells & Son, a former cannery in Wilton, on Thursday. The company, founded in 1894, has shifted to selling fresh fiddleheads across the country.

Staff Photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

WEIGH-IN: Butch Wells wieghs two sacks of fresh fiddleheads at W.S. Wells & Son in Wilton on Thursday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

By the early afternoon, these foot soldiers start arriving in waves at a small building in Wilton, where Butch Wells awaits the daily bounty of the unique New England delicacy.

Wells pays the pickers and ships the fiddleheads to markets and restaurants across Maine and nationwide, re-creating an exchange that has played out for generations at W.S. Wells & Son.

But recent shifts in the specialty food market have caused a few changes at the family-owned business, which had been the last remaining small cannery operation in the region until about three years ago.

That's when Wells shut the canning machines down in favor of selling only fresh fiddleheads, ending a tradition that his great-grandfather started more than 100 years ago.

Despite the change, however, the business continues to thrive and support an underground economy based on people selling fiddleheads to make some extra money each spring.

"There's a lot more to the fiddlehead and canning business than people think," Wells said.

New take on family tradition

Wells, whose given name is Adrian, same as his father, has a small office filled with keepsakes of his family's business, each memento another chapter in a story that spans four generations and the small rural towns they called home.

Pictures of his great-grandfather and grandfather hang next to colorful canning labels bearing the family's Belle of Maine brand name. The intricate label designs feature dates reaching back more than a century.

Papers and news clippings yellow from age spill out of drawers onto desktops. Filing cabinets overflow with years of records, cooking recipes and family secrets about cleaning and canning produce.

Wells even keeps a rust-covered can to remember his great-grandfather Walter Scott, who started the family business in North Anson in 1894.

He picked up the heirloom earlier this week, looked over the photos on his office walls and recalled the history behind the family business passed down from father to son over the years.

Following a brief stint when the cannery was in Dryden, his grandfather Vance Wells Sr. moved the business to a property off High Street in Wilton, where it remains today.

After settling in the rural Franklin County town, the small family-run cannery business was constantly evolving over the decades. They started out canning pie mix and sauce from apples picked from an orchard at the site, expanding into string beans, tomatoes and other produce grown on farms nearby.

Competition from big commercial cannery operations, however, eventually forced his grandfather to rethink the business. In 1967, he was approached by an Old Town man who was harvesting a crop that would go on to redefine W.S. Wells & Son.

That's when Vance Wells Sr. began canning fiddleheads, the Northeast staple dating back to the 1700s. But it was a gamble because few people outside of the close-knit agriculture community really knew about the edible fern until the late 1960s, when Wells became one of the first people to commercialize it.

Fiddleheads, the early growth of the Ostrich fern, are cleaned, boiled and served in a variety of ways, ranging from sautés and salads to soups and casseroles. They combine the flavors of asparagus and mushrooms.

When the cannery in Wilton began selling fiddleheads to grocery stores nationwide, the business thrived by tapping into a growing demand for specialty foods. It eventually added canned dandelions and the operation peaked in the early 1990s, when the cannery processed about 69,000 pounds of fiddleheads alone.

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