Munching on Trees
Originally published in the Chronicle Herald: Wild Edibles Column
The evergreen giants that define Nova Scotia’s landscape and surround my house in Halifax are the harbingers of growth and renewal as we shift from spring to summer. From late May until mid June, bright green tips start appearing on spruce, hemlock, pine and douglas fir trees, revealing tender nubs of baby needles.
Every year around this time, when they are forming new needles, I anxiously anticipate the short season when the young conifer tips are bright green, soft, and citrusy. In late spring, evergreen spruces and firs begin to change. Their needles grow brown tips, slowly they swell, shedding their papery brown coats, transforming into shoots that look like they’ve been dipped in lime paint. As each day passes the tips grow larger, fanning out they eventually form dark green hard needles. This is how evergreen trees grow, and it’s a short window. A few weeks before the needles turn hard, is the time to pick them.
Conifers did not define my southern African upbringing the way they have for many of my northern friends. When I first moved to Halifax ten years ago, I read what has become a forager’s bible of sorts, “Stalking the Wild Asapargus” by Euell Gibbons published in 1962, that instilled a love and appreciation of conifers. Years on, a combination of a good Finnish friend, a fascination with Nordic cuisine and an abundance of spruce and fir trees in my backyard, I’ve come to anticipate and await the arrival of the little bright green jewels that dance on the tips of the needles. Even if you’re not inclined to eat trees, the fresh, wild citrus flavours of conifers will be a recognisable one. As the days get warmer and the sun sits high enough to send shafts of light through the boughs and awaken the forests, they release volatile oils and aromas coaxed by the warmth in these islands of light. Take a deep breathe – you will smell citrus zest, pineapple and deep herbaceous aromas.
An afternoon of dog walking through the forest pinching the tips of the spruce and birch trees has me running recipes and uses through my head at the bounty they offer – spruce shoot syrup that will be added to gin and elderflower liqueur for a woodsy cocktail. Combined with lemons they will form the backbone to a tart and citrusy lemonade; chopped up finely they will infuse the sugar for spruce sorbet; packed into apple cider vinegar they make a delicious dressing and marinade.
Rene Redezepi of Noma in Copenhagen became the poster child for spruce shoots. He uncovered in the seemingly bleak northern climate something powerfully evocative and set an example for chefs to pay close attention to the land. Since him other chefs have embraced the young shoots on their menus and fir, spruce, and pine are turning up as flavour agents in everything from cookies, vinegars, and gremolatas to wild game.
Aboriginal chef Robin Wasicuna includes candied spruce tips on the menu at his Wiseguy food truck in Yellowknife. Garrison Brewery uses spruce and fir tips to flavour its Spruce Beer. Eliot & Vigne Chef Laughlan Culjak serves them pickled; Ironworks infuses their gin with birch tips; Chef Jason Lynch, from Le Caveau cures the tips that he sells in jars seasonally to serve with smoked fish.
The practice of collecting and using conifer shoots is an ancient one and has been around since the ancient Scandinavians first surveyed their vast forests, looking for something to ferment into alcohol. 18th century English sailors were practically required to drink spruce beer in an effort to prevent scurvy. Raw conifer needles contain significant levels of vitamin C, much higher than citrus fruits. First Nations have long known the culinary value of conifers, steeping needles in tea for medicinal purposes and using fir needles to cure salmon long before smoking it over alder and maple fires.
Every tree will taste a little different, so taste in the field to make sure you don’t get one too nasty. If you happen to find an especially citrusy tree, mark it down. Never pick the new growth at the top of a little tree, as this can stunt it. Pick around the edges, a few tips here and there. Don’t overharvest any one tree. You really don’t need much. Once you have them, they will keep a week or so in the fridge, but I like to vacuum seal the tips and freeze them. Sealed, the tips will last a year.
So head out into the woods, likely a short walk from your front door, with an increased appreciation of these wondrous timbers and gather a few tips. Then bring your spoils back to the kitchen and try ‘em.
Spruce Shoot Syrup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 cup fir or spruce tips
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a lidded pot, stirring to make sure all the sugar is dissolved. Turn down the heat and add the spruce tips and lemon juice, if using, cover the pot and leave to cool.
3. The longer you steep the syrup, the stronger spruce flavour you’ll get.
4. Strain the syrup through cheesecloth and bottle.
Mix it with sparkling water; add it to your gin cocktail; combine it with vinegar & olive oil for vinaigrette or add more lemon and glaze a roast chicken or duck breasts.
Note that most conifers can be used here: spruce, fir, pine. Remember that not all evergreen trees are edible, and it’s vital that identification of spruce and other conifers is accurate. Flavour will be variable from tree to tree and species to species. Be very careful not to pick from the yew, which is a common landscaping plant and highly toxic.
Always remember the following when foraging…
Think sustainably. When you’re harvesting plants or mushrooms, never take it all.
Always make sure that there is enough to promote future harvests.
Consider your surroundings. If you’re in an urban area, or even a rural area with a history of pollution, use common sense before you pluck.
Do your homework. There are a number of books and websites to get you started. Check out http://northernbushcraft.com/ as a good resource with pictures. There’s also a great new app called Useful Nova Scotia Plants. The free app features an alphabetical listing of plants using their English names, full screen photos, and details such as which part of the plant is edible, recipes, and cautions.
Happy foraging until next time.