With the figure on how much food we waste as a nation very much a hot topic of conversation, and the farm-to-table movement still en vogue, it’s only appropriate that we make the most of ingredients following the gluttony of the festive season.
No, I’m not talking about recipes for leftover goose and day-old Brussel sprouts – there will be plenty of TV shows and newspaper articles to cover those topics in the coming weeks. Instead, I’m going to tell you about my favourite way to use up possibly the most expensive ingredient you have in your home: the Christmas tree. It’s actually quite surprising that more people haven’t experimented with pine at home, given that it’s ubiquitous all over the country and has even been elevated to ‘haute ingredient’ status, due to Instagram favourites like The Clove Club’s signature ‘Buttermilk Fried Chicken’.
This isn’t a case of me trying to shock you with weird and wonderful techniques to turn something odd into something edible. Pine trees have been an important part of diets across most of the planet for centuries. Plus we all already enjoy the resinous flavour of pine nuts, so it shouldn’t be too much of a departure from the norm.
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If you’re still unsure, take off a needle and taste it. These evergreens are high in pinene compounds, obviously, but also contain limonene, menthol and other fragrant, flavourful molecules found in more ‘conventional’ ingredients.
There are literally thousands of ways to use pine trees in cooking – as fuel, as a herb, and as a salad green. Here are some of my favourites:
1) Infused Honey
Pretty straightforward; wash some freshly picked sprigs, heat up some honey, combine in a jar. After a few weeks, the honey is ready, but will keep indefinitely. It makes an excellent cheeseboard staple for strong, hard cheeses like Manchego.
2) Infused Vodka
Slightly lazy writing putting two infusions next to each other, but if you’ve tasted pine before, this combination will make perfect sense. My favourite vodka for this is Cîroc – it’s clean finish is perfect for infusions – but can work with other high quality vodkas. This is even easier than the honey, as you just drop the pine needles in so that they fill up 1/3 of the vodka bottle. Leave for 3-6 months and you’ll be set for the best dirty martini you’ve ever tasted.
3) Pine tea
Or, better yet, pine syrup. This basically involves adding pine in whatever quantity you want to boiling water. Add equal parts sugar to the water and you can create a syrup or cordial which should make on-the-hoof cups of pine tea a little more accessible. It’s also great as an iced tea, so definitely one to try.
4) Pine salt
The go-to method of preserving fresh herbs is to blend them with coarse rock or sea salt. This is one occasion where I would suggest steering clear of the expensive flaked sea salt (such as fleur de sel or Maldon salt). Simply blend one part pine to one part salt. This is great for finishing things like roast chicken.
Alternatively, substitute the salt with sugar cubes and you have a great alternative to regular sugar when dusting shortbread. Either way, both will keep in a sealed jar for three months before the flavour starts to dull.
5) Shoots and buds
This isn’t a recipe, as such, but requires a bit of patience. Plant out your Christmas tree in the garden – if you’re lucky enough to have one – and wait for the light green tips to emerge. Some species will start to do this from as early as Valentine’s day.
Known mainly as pine shoots, these fresh, small clusters of pine needles have a much softer flavour and are a lot more tender than their older siblings. I really like to blend them into cream cheese for a really unique topping for bagels, but they also make a great addition to fish stews and hearty salads.
If none of the above appeals, simply snip the needles from your tree in the new year and dry in a low oven (c. 50˚C) overnight. When it comes to barbecue season, throw your dried pine on to the coals just before taking off whatever you’re cooking. This will yield the faintest hint of pine-flavour, and works best with more delicate ingredients (potatoes, chicken, trout).
As with any type of foraged or fresh product, it’s of paramount importance that you’re careful about where you source your Christmas tree if you’re going to eat it after. Try to ensure that anything you choose is free from pesticides.
While the flavour of different types of pine trees can vary from species to species, they generally have the same profile, just different levels of strength. My personal favourites are Douglas Fir and Spruce – the latter is slightly more resinous, while Dougie Fir is an amazing addition to biscuits and other sweet treats.
Don’t be afraid to give pine a go; it’s not just for Christmas after all.