After one of the harshest winters on record, Canadians are yearning for any sign of spring. Trees are among the first harbingers, a flush of electric green in the fir forest, a tender whorl of new needles sprouting on your backyard spruce.
And they are the first taste of spring for creative cooks.
"Most of the country's conifers are edible, even the buds of sugar maples are delicious when sautéed," says Bill Jones, a chef and foraging expert who lives on Vancouver Island. "Grand fir needles make a tea that will blow you away."
Jones's new book, The Deerholme Foraging Book, includes creative recipes for wild foods of all kinds, including those using the needles and tender tips of Douglas fir, grand fir and Sitka spruce he collects in the forest around his farm in the Cowichan Valley. He's one of a number of chefs across the country who are incorporating conifers in their cooking – spruce tips even turned up in the "mystery ingredients" box on the Food Network's new season of Chopped Canada.
When it comes to flavour, Jones describes conifer needles as "citrusy," akin to bitter grapefruit zest with floral aromas. He includes these woodland ingredients in his grand fir jelly, in fir or spruce-infused vodka, Oysters with Grand Fir Vinaigrette, and even a Grand Fir, Chocolate and Hazelnut Tart.
"There is something magical about the combination of grand fir and chocolate, though spruce and pine tips would be just as pleasing," he writes in the description of the dense chocolate tart, which includes a cup of young fir needles, infused into the cream for the ganache.
First Nations have long known the culinary value of these conifers. Jones says coastal people used fir needles to cure salmon before smoking it over alder and maple fires, a technique he borrows for his recipe for Smoked Salmon with Honey and Grand Fir Needles.
While Jones favours the "fine and delicate flavour" of grand fir (Abies grandis), whether you live in the West Coast rain forest, high in the Yukon or deep in the boreal woods of Quebec, edible evergreens are everywhere.
"Spruce tips have always been something people munched on in the spring," says long-time Canadian forager Jonathan Forbes of Forbes Wild Food in Toronto. Forbes sells his Canadian wild edibles to chefs, restaurants and retailers – his lightly pickled spruce tips mimic capers, and turn up in Muskoka Martinis, while balsam fir and cedar jellies are brushed over salmon or served with cheese. "These are true Canadian flavours," he says.
Aboriginal chef Robin Wasicuna includes candied spruce tips on the menu at his Wiseguy food truck in Yellowknife. And Ontario's Highlander Brew Co. uses spruce tips to flavour its Twisted Spruce Ale.
In Yukon, Michele Genest, author of The Boreal Gourmet and upcoming The Boreal Feast, is waiting for spruce harvesting season.
"We're six weeks away from spruce tips, but the trees have shot up spindly new tops, like crazy ballet dancers – the joy of spring in tree form," Genest says from her home in Whitehorse.
Genest says the smallest tips can be quickly pickled in a brine of water, vinegar, salt and sugar to be used like capers, or candied in a simple syrup made with spruce tip tea. Her books include recipes ranging from spruce tip focaccia and salmon gravlax, where tender young conifer needles stand in for dill, to chevre spread with chopped spruce tips and spruce tip shortbread.
On Vancouver Island, Jones infuses young conifer tips into honey, syrup, vinegars and oils, or simply steeps the needles for tea.
"The oils are alcohol soluble so you can chop the needles and infuse in vodka, too," he says. "I also process the new tips with sea salt to preserve the essential oils and make a lovely green salt for curing and seasoning food."
Consuming conifers can also be good for you. Raw conifer needles contain significant levels of vitamin C, much higher than citrus fruits, and pine or spruce needle tea has the medicinal effect of opening airways and soothing sore throats. Which is also why Jones recommends collecting the needles in the spring – "the new growth tips of the trees are full of essential oils, sugars and vitamins."
However, while most of Canada's indigenous conifers are edible, Jones, who offers wild foraging and cooking classes at his Deerholme Farm, says it's important to identify trees before you eat them. For instance, the multistemmed yew with its red berries and peeling bark is deadly, he says, and both ponderosa and lodgepole pine contain isocupressic acid, which induces abortions in cattle, so are not recommended for pregnant women. Otherwise, "anything else across the country, whether it's white pine or spruce, has amazing flavour."
As long as you're not using chemical herbicides or insecticides, it's possible to harvest conifer tips in your own backyard. Just break off the new growth as it emerges from the papery husks at the end of each branch.
"The needles are soft, almost silky, and bunched closely together like the hairs of a paint brush," says Genest. "Once the brown husk falls off and the needles spring outward, the resiny taste becomes pronounced and bitter, and you've missed the boat.
"But the good news is, you can start at lower altitudes and move up into the mountains, following the warmth as it climbs."