Looking for some magical forest flavours to spice up your west coast cuisine? Head to the forest in the spring to forage for the bright new growth of conifers.
(Cinda Chavich photos)
By CINDA CHAVICH
There’s a flush of electric green in the coastal forest as conifers send out their new spring shoots - and that means it’s prime time to forage.
"Most of the region’s fir, spruce and pine trees are edible," says Bill Jones, an island chef, author and foraging expert, “but I especially love the Grand Fir.”
“In spring, the new tips are soft and highly aromatic, and make a tea that will blow you away."
In his comprehensive book, The Deerholme Foraging Book (Touchwood Editions), Jones shares recipes for wild foods of all kinds, including those using the needles and tender tips of the indigenous Douglas fir and Sitka spruce he collects in the forest around his farm in the Cowichan Valley. Jones is just one of the chefs across the region who are incorporating conifers into their cooking – the citrusy flavour of this woodsy wild food becoming as Canadian as maple syrup, and turning up in everything from coastal cocktails and pretty green pesto to crème brulée.
Jones says conifer tips add a hint of bitter grapefruit zest and a floral aroma to his grand fir jelly, spruce-infused vodka, Oysters with Grand Fir Vinaigrette, and even a Grand Fir, Chocolate and Hazelnut Tart, which includes a cup of young fir needles infused into the cream for the ganache.
"There is something magical about the combination of grand fir and chocolate, though spruce and pine tips would be just as pleasing," he writes.
You can also soak young spruce tips in vodka to infuse it with flavour, then sweeten with simple syrup for a woodsy liqueur to add to your cocktails. A pesto made with minced young fir or spruce tips, olive oil and salt makes a lovely rub to cure a piece of salmon for the grill.
Other island chefs are experimenting with conifers, too. At OLO in Victoria, Spruce Cultured Cream is served alongside their Alder Smoked Salmon. In Qualicum Beach, wild crafter and cook Mandolyn Jonasson adds citrusy fir and spruce tips to her creative menu at Island Sodaworks.
Laura Waters, of Snowdon House Gourmet in Saanich, uses the firs planted on her former tree farm to make vinegars and preserves, including her spicy Fir and Fire dipping sauce and Fir Essence for sodas and cocktails.
And it’s no surprise that Blue Spruce Ice Cream in Courtenay launched its line of artisanal ice cream with a signature Spruce Tip flavour, one that’s “tasty enough to give us our name”.
There’s a long history of cooking with conifers in Canada, from First Nations curing Pacific salmon with fresh fir tips to éclade de moules in Quebec, a traditional dish of mussels smoked in a vessel filled with burning pine needles.
Explorer Captain James Cook learned to brew spruce beer to help ward off scurvy, an inspiration for Tofino Brewing and its Spruce Tree Ale, conditioned with local Sitka Spruce tips. STUMP Coastal Forest Gin from Phillip’s Fermentorium gets its distinctive rainforest flavours from island Grand Fir and juniper, while deVine’s Vin Gin includes spruce among its traditional botanicals, and the frothy Cedar Sour cocktail at Wolf in the Fog is made with their own cedar-infused rye.
Cooking with conifers at home can be as easy as a trip to your own back yard. Collect the bright green fir and spruce tips when they first emerge in spring, just as they lose their papery husk, and are still tightly compressed and tender.
Pull a branch through your fingers and you will find the “spiky spruce” and “friendly fir” descriptors useful for identification. Grand Fir needles are distinct, notched at the tip with white stripes along the back.
But make sure you know what you’re eating. Yew trees are highly toxic and may cause death if ingested, so it’s always best to forage with an expert.
Gather Victoria is a good place to start. Danielle Prohom Olson and Jennifer Aikman, the women behind Gather, take their inspiration from ancient traditions and seasonal celebrations, offering educational workshops and wild food feasts.
“Many of these are the same plants eaten by our ancestors,” says Prohom Olson, who shares her recipes for green jellies infused with young conifer tips and buttery cookies glazed with resiny spruce icing on their gathervictoria.com site. “Conifers are always great with cream and sugar, or you can mince needles and combine with salt or butter to rub on meat or salmon.”
You can also add the tender tips to spring salads or mince to fold into fresh goat cheese. Simply crushed and infused in honey, sugar syrups, oils, vinegars and spirits, coastal conifers add a wild edge to any dish.
Prohom Olson says the aromatic phytoncides that defend trees against bacteria, insects and fungi, are also medicinal for humans - the volatile oils emanating from spruce and fir can improve both your physical and emotional health.
Adds Aikman: “Gathering brings nature and magic back into everyday life.”