Free, if you forage. Slightly more, if you out source. Chef Peter Scarola pays $13 for an 8-ounce mound of spruce tips from his local co-op in Philadelphia.
Store as you would rosemary, wrapped in damp paper towel in walk-in. The leaves may also be dried, as with herbs.
Those needles are the leaves and vary slightly in presentation and flavor from fir to spruce and pine. Beyond piney flavor, complex citrus notes of grapefruit, pomelo, and orange may be present and change in subtlety from tree to tree.
Fir trees are not just for Christmas and caterpillars anymore. From San Francisco to Philadelphia and London, chefs are making room in their walk-ins for these fragrant evergreen conifers. As early as 2007 Heston Blumenthal was adding pine essential oil to bird feed so that his Christmas goose would taste like the holiday. The current widespread and year-round use of the aromatic arbor is in part due to trend-setting and influential chefs such as Blumenthal, but also to the fanatical foraging culture that has developed over the past decade.
Foraging for fir is possibly one of the hippest endeavors a chef can undertake, short of moving to Brooklyn, curling your mustache, strapping on suspenders, and donning a knit cap. But before anyone swaps their clogs for hiking boots, let's clarify exactly what we're looking for.
Fir needles are flat, and each individual leaf is directly attached to a branch at its base, which looks somewhat like a suction cup. Though not technically a fir, but in the pine family, chefs prize Douglas fir for its light, citrusy notes.
Spruce leaves are four-sided and resemble a diamond in cross section. Each leaf is attached individually to the branch as well, in a spiraling pattern.
Pine leaves are easy to spot because they're the only needles of the evergreen trio that grow together in clumps.
The towering timbers grow wildly across six continents—likely a short walk from your front door. 2013 Philadelphia Rising Star Chef Peter Scarola of R2L doesn't have time to leave his busy kitchen to scour parks and woods around Philly for spruce tips. He picks them up at a local co-op that sources from area farmers and foragers and charges only slightly more than nothing for the small branches. "I believe the spruce has a more subtle flavor and aroma than fir or pine. It has an earthy, citrus, and herbaceous flavor. It works well with pineapple or acidic fruits. We're serving Spruce Ice Cream with a pineapple financier [at R2L]. I only use the tips, which are the new growth of needles at the tips of the branch that come out in spring," explains Scarola. "[Spruce] can be overpowering, so you have to be careful; It could end up tasting like car air-freshener! It's a fun ingredient, though. I would recommend using it in anything that you'd normally infuse an herb into."
2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Jason Fox of Commonwealth infuses a taste of the Northern California landscape into his earthy dish of Matsutakes, Douglas Fir Custard, Shaved Turnip, and Buddha's Hand Citron. Chefs are being playful with pines of all sorts, like kids on Christmas morning. Fir, spruce, and pine are turning up as flavor agents in everything from cookies, vinegars, and gremolatas to wild game. Chef Sat Bain of Restaurant Sat Bain in Nottingham compresses deer filets with Dougals fir infused brown butter, poaches the venison, then sears it a al plancha in a dish dubbed Fallow Deer: Cauliflower, Chocolate, and Quince.
The delicate pine tips can even be eaten fresh off the branch on the foraging field. But the more mature leaves need to be cooked or finely chopped to be palatable. The branches can also be used in place of rosemary; just store them as you would the piney herb. This is precisely how 2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chefs Evan and Sarah Rich of Rich Table employ pine in their Chicken Lasagna with Pumpkin and Greens.
Matsutakes, Douglas Fir Custard, Shaved Turnip, and Buddha's Hand Citron
Fallow Deer - Cauliflower, Chocolate, and Quince
Chicken Lasagna with Pumpkin and Greens
The Pioneer at Trenchermen
Mixologist Tona Palomino of Chicago's Trenchermen joined the pine party last December with her George Dickel Cascade Hollow pine-infused whiskey drink she calls The Pioneer. Although the idea of eating part of an evergreen tree may be unfamiliar to some diners, the aroma and flavor of pine is familiar to most and often carries nostalgic associations that chefs and mixos alike can tap into. And by serving up pine to guests that have arrived late to the party, these professionals are turning their patrons into pioneers.