Before you chuck that Christmas tree out read this…..

Saturday 5th January 2012

Today we are foraging indoors! Christmas decorations are meant to be taken down by midnight tonight, so how about using you Christmas tree to create some interesting flavours? Unless your tree is of the artificial kind it will almost certainly be a species of Pine, Spruce or Fir all of which are non-toxic and providing it isn’t too dried out from the central heating there should be enough of the essential oils in the needles to extract some flavour.

There are several ways to utilise them. You could simply infuse the needles in hot water for 10-15 minutes before straining and drinking as a herbal tee or utilise the flavoured water as a stock to cook rice, pasta or potatoes. The longer you let the needles infuse the stronger the flavour but do not boil the water with the needles in as it will extract the resin and taste awful. The harder needled pine and spruce will yield more flavour if the needles are roughly chopped first but this isn’t necessary with the softer fir leaves.

An alternative way to use them is to infuse the needles in hot vinegar which can then be used to flavour salad dressings, sauces etc.

They can also be used in sweet recipes as well by infusing the needles for 24 hours in a hot sugar syrup (adding a bit of tartaric acid is supposed to draw out the flavour), this can then be used to make jellies, sorbets, granitas etc.

I have known people to make wine from them (think Greek retsina) and in Russia they make beer from spruce.

The needles can also be dried and then powdered and the powder sprinkled onto food as a condiment.

Of all the conifers that I’ve tried my personal favourites to use is Douglas Fir Pseudotsuga menziesii and Grand Fir Abies grandis these have more of a citrus like flavour, almost grapefruit like, than the others which can be somewhat reminiscent of disinfectant! Douglas Fir particularly has become very popular with chefs recently, it frequently crops up on the Great British Menu and it’s used by Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck. Both these species originate from western North America and are popular choices for Christmas trees as you get less needle drop in addition to the lovely smell.


Douglas Fir Pseudotsuga menziessii 


Underside of needles have two distinct white longitudinal stripes

Both species have soft, flat needles which have two white lines running the length of the needle underneath. On Douglas Fir the needles radiate out all around the twig where on Grand Fir the spread out to either side.

Obviously we don’t have to limit using these conifers just to this time of year. Although most aren’t native to this country they are grown commercially for timber, paper pulp and the Christmas tree industry and as evergreens they can be used all year round.

The only significantly toxic (lethally so) species to watch out for is Yew Taxus baccata. The needles on Yew are flat and soft, dark green above with a distinct raised central vein down the middle and pale green below. They easiest way to identify it is to crush the needles and smell…..Yew has no distinct scent, whereas all the Pines, Spruces and Firs will have a strong and definite pine or citrus like smell.

With your Christmas trees, it’ s worth checking that the trees haven’t been treated to prevent needle drop…..thanks to Ian Nairn for pointing that out. We haven’t been able to ascertain what chemical is used but better to be safe than sorry.

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