Updated: Jun 27
"collecting the “spruce tips,” or new growth in the spring is easy."
By: Erin Flaherty
Exploring place, through wild foods, is something that I’ve been dedicating more effort to in recent years. The sights, smells, and sounds of a landscape that’s familiar to me are deeply nostalgic and make me feel connected to special wild spaces.
Growing up in northern Alberta, it’s the baking-spice smell of balsam poplar buds in the spring or the musky funk of high bush cranberries in the fall; it’s the aromatic stickiness of spruce sap on my clothing and the invisible assault of spiderwebs on my face while forging a trail through the dense boreal forest. It’s the sound of drumming grouse or loons on the lake long after dark. Nature is a deeply sensory experience, so it makes sense that taste is an important part of connecting with any landscape.
"I want to experiment with some very simple and accessible local flavours."
Terrior is a term used to explain how regional geography and distinct physical features of a particular landscape can contribute to the way food tastes. You may be more familiar with this concept in relation to wine, coffee, or chocolate, but I’m interested in exploring this idea when it comes to wild foods. As a first step, I’m interested in digging deeper into some of the more familiar ingredients from my home territory and deepening my experience of their flavours and utility in the kitchen. This doesn’t have to mean complicated ingredients or plant identification skills. I’m not a botanist or a chef and I’m all for keeping things accessible. So rather than jump into the deep end of obscure plant identification, ingredients, and techniques, I want to experiment with some very simple and accessible local flavours. One ingredient, prepared multiple ways, as a means of first experiencing my local terroir.
Spruce Tips as a Wild Food Ingredient
Spruce trees are common across Canada and are especially prevalent in the northern boreal forest that is most familiar to me. Both black and white spruce are easy to locate in many urban and rural settings that I frequent, so collecting the “spruce tips,” or new growth in the spring is easy. The key here is to look for the soft, bright green new growth on the tips of trees in the spring–late May or early June depending on the location and the year.
A few principles for harvesting: don’t pick from the crown (top) of the three as it can stunt tree growth. Spread out your harvest so your impact on each tree is minimal, and taste them as you go–flavours can vary significantly between trees. Simply put, you are looking for ones that taste good–tangy, lemony/limey/citrusy is ideal; but some may have a more biting astringent taste that is not-so-good. Leave those ones be.
Spruce tip use has been common in the culinary space for quite some time–so there is no shortage of recipe inspiration online. I decided to aim for three different preparations to see how I could incorporate the flavours into different types of dishes. But I’m a busy working mom with no time for frivolities–so this needed to be simple. I’m also not one for following recipes, so I needed some ideas to inspire me and then room to experiment. My best advice is to keep things simple and play off of things that you already enjoy.
Here are the three dishes I created during my spruce tips taste exploration
#1 - Spruce Tip Gimlet
My first goal was to make a drink. I’ve been experimenting with lacto-fermentation for a few years, and the idea of a sparkling spruce tip soda was appealing to me. Many naturally fermented sodas use a starter culture or “ginger bug” to speed up fermentation. But this felt like an extra step that I didn’t have time for. I opted to try out a slower fermentation using only raw honey, water, spruce tips, and some lemon. The wild yeast on the spruce tips and in the unpasteurized honey feasts on the sugars and creates a lovely tangly and effervescent soda after a few days of fermentation at room temperature. This sounds way more complicated than it is.
I used a one-quart mason jar, filled about ⅓ full of spruce tips, added a couple of slices of lemon, and a large glob of honey, and filled the jar with unchlorinated water. You want to add enough honey so that the taste is pleasantly sweet, perhaps slightly sweeter than you would want to drink it. The lid should be on very loosely, enough to let any bubbles of air escape during fermentation. After 48 hours on the counter, I had no signs of fermentation but had produced a delightful spruce lemonade that my family devoured. I had to start a second batch in order to attempt the soda. Same instructions, but this time I left it on the counter for 4-5 days, which is when the fermentation bubbles started to appear. This was good news and meant the yeast was active. I left it on the counter another day or two, strained out all the needles, and then waited another day before bottling and refrigerating. The flavour was incredible! Unique tropical citrus notes that were really unlike anything I’ve tasted before.
While it was delicious on its own, I also used the soda to create a spruce tip gimlet using a shot of gin, a squeeze of lime, and a drizzle of spruce tip simple syrup that I had made the day before (made by steeping spruce tips overnight in simple syrup). I rimmed the glass with spruce tip sugar, which I pureed using spruce tips and white sugar in a 1:1 ratio. This drink was a 10/10–sweet, tangy, summery, citrus, effervescent perfection, and the spruce tip flavour was unmistakable.
#2 Spruce Tip Shortbread
Since I already had spruce tip sugar on hand, I decided to use it in a simple recipe for shortbread cookies. Any recipe will do–you can use your favourite, or refer to the recipe below for a simple, slice-and-bake classic shortbread. I recommend processing your spruce tips with the sugar, at a 1:1 ratio. That way, the flavour is well distributed and you have no pokey bits in your cookies. These were incredible. The flavour of the spruce tips came through beautifully, and the lemon zest I added to the recipe did not overpower the flavour. These did not last long in my house and will definitely make another appearance.
In a food processor, combine ½ cup of fresh spruce tips with ½ cup of white sugar and process until the needles are finely chopped and you have a uniform mixture. Empty into a bowl or stand mixer.
Add 1 cup of softened (unsalted) butter, the zest of one lemon, and ¼ tsp of salt and mix until the batter is creamy.
Add 2 cups of flour to the mixture, half a cup at a time, until the batter is just combined.
Divide the dough into two equal parts, each on a sheet of parchment paper. Form each one into a log, about 5 cm in diameter, and roll up in the parchment paper, twisting the ends.
Place the logs in the freezer for at least 20 minutes, or until you are ready to bake.
Slice into rounds about 1 cm thick and bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet at 350 F for 10 minutes.
#3 Spruce Tip Chimichurri
"...chimichurri sauce is a favourite condiment in my house, I set out to create a Canadian-inspired version."
For my third dish, I wanted to make something savoury. After seeing how well the spruce tips infused into other liquids, I decided to try them in olive oil. Since chimichurri sauce is a favourite condiment in my house, I set out to create a Canadian-inspired version. A raw sauce/marinade/condiment popular in South American cuisine, chimichurri has a base of olive oil with red wine vinegar, garlic, and a selection of fresh herbs.
I first infused some fresh spruce tips in olive oil for 3-4 days, where it developed a wonderful citrus flavour. Endless possibilities for what you could do with the oil alone. After straining out the needles, I added red wine vinegar (about ½ cup oil to ¼ cup vinegar), one clove of fresh garlic, a handful of chopped Italian parsley, salt and pepper, and about a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh spruce tips. The uses of this miracle condiment are endless; we used it as a marinade, a salad dressing, and a condiment on top of grilled meat, roasted potatoes, and grilled veggies. It did not disappoint, though the spruce flavour was definitely more subtle in this one. Fresh garlic can easily overpower the flavour of the spruce tips, so go lightly here. With one small clove, I was still able to taste the familiar spruce flavour that I’ve grown to love, though I’m not sure I would have noticed it if I wasn’t so keenly attuned to the flavour.
Next, I used some of the spruce-infused olive oil to marinate a steak that I rubbed with spruce tip salt and some pepper before grilling. I served the steak sliced on a bed of miner’s lettuce and spinach from the garden and topped with the chimichurri for a fresh and bright hearty summer salad. When it all came together, the spruce flavour was pretty minimal, but it was delicious nonetheless.
So there you have it. Spruce tips, three ways (and endless more possibilities). I definitely feel more familiar and confident with using this ingredient in my kitchen, and I hope you do too! Step two will be exploring whether spruce tips here taste like spruce tips anywhere else. Is there a distinct terroir to this ingredient? I have no idea. The spruce tip culinary tour will have to wait until next year. Stay tuned!
Editors Note: About the Author - Erin Flaherty
Erin spent her childhood years fishing and hunting with her family in the boreal forest of northern Alberta.
With a Master's Degree in recreation and leisure studies, she is very passionate about helping people build new skills and confidence in the outdoors. Erin has worked in outdoor education, recreation management, community development, and parks planning. As a mother of two young children, an avid paddler, and a new fly fisher, she is always searching for ways to connect with people and places through outdoor, nature-based activities.