Spruce it Up
by Robert Booz
In sixth grade, my friend and I both read the classic survival novel My Side of the Mountain, by Gene Craighead George, and decided that living a life of subsistence in the wilderness seemed like a pretty good idea. The first step in proving our readiness to rough it was brewing batch after batch of pine needle tea. As twelve-year-olds, brewing pine needle tea was an easy wilderness skill to master: pick pine needles—preferably from a spruce or fir, never from the toxic yew—boil water, steep the tea, and drink. The tattered survival guidebooks that we found in the local library informed us that this drink was full of nutrients and would fortify us for the wild woods.
I had all but forgotten about cooking with pine needles until around 2009, when I was working as a chef in a fine-dining restaurant in Philadelphia. We were serving the much-sought-after matsutake (Japanese pine mushroom) with a brown butter and spice-poached venison loin. The mushrooms received a number of treatments for the final plate-up, but my favorite was the pine-poaching technique. We would thinly slice the mushrooms and place them in a dish with a bit of crushed garlic, sea salt, good olive oil, and pine needles (in this case, ones stealthily clipped from a neighbor’s topiary), cover it all tightly and cook it slowly. The final product was a supple, warm mushroom with a hint of pine, delicate but just enough to accent the natural flavor of the fungus.
A year earlier, traveling around Europe, I was living in the Marche region of Italy, harvesting olives in the foothills of the Apennines. It was there that I learned a cooking technique from a Sardinian cheesemaker that I’ve since adopted for use with pine. The cheesemaker, a stoop-statured and weather-beaten man, would take day- old wheels of his sheep’s milk cheese, cut them in half, and set the cut side before the flames of an oak fire. Occasionally, he would throw a handful of freshly picked wild rosemary onto the fire, and the herbs would infuse flavor as the heat melted and blistered the surface of the cheese. When the cheese began to caramelize, he’d use a thin knife to scrape away the melted layer and spread it onto thin Sardini- an flatbread. Here in New England, I substitute the impossible-to-find-in-New-England wild rosemary with fresh pine needles found readily along my driveway. When I can’t find fresh cheese, I’ve used haloumi or feta with much success on good bread or crackers. Wine improves the experience, as it often does.
Thanks in large part to chefs like Thomas Keller and Dan Barber, but especially to the Danish wunderkind, René Redzepi, foraging is all the rage in the restaurant world these days. And pine—in shoots, needles, bark, and more—is making its way onto menus everywhere. (If you Google “pine” and “Noma”—Redzepi’s restaurant—pages and pages of results featuring their dishes pop up, everything from pine and asparagus to shallots and blueberries with spruce oil and vinegar.) I recently helped to plan a dinner in Chicago with chef Brandon Baltzley and we served up fried lake smelts with a variety of garnishes that he had harvested the night before while camping in the Indiana dunes. Among the offerings were delicious little spruce shoots that perfectly matched the cattails, morel aioli, and ramps, all accompanying the delicate fried fish. The piney bite provided balance and levity to the rich flavors of the aioli and fish, while accenting the smokey, charred ramps.
These days, I primarily use pine needles while grilling. On a recent trip to Pennsylvania with my father, I brought along a plump and deeply colored breast from a wild Canada goose that I’d shot on the Vineyard last fall. While slowly roasting the goose over coals, I fed handfuls of spruce needles into the fire around the breast; the result was sublime, a perfect marriage of wild flavors. If you can’t get your hands on goose, pine makes a nice addition to anything grilled—fish, poultry, red meat, even vegetables. A couple of years back, Saveur featured a simple recipe for mussels grilled under a pile of pine needles that’s worth a try, especially with fresh Island shellfish.
There’s plenty of pine to be found on Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s a simple but potent ingredient to incorporate into your cooking (even if that means starting with a cup or two of pine tea—it’s delicious and quite good for you). Throw some needles onto the grill, or, beyond that, infuse them into cooking oils, vinegars or hard spirits. Pine whiskey? I haven’t tried it, but it sounds like it could be an interesting
experiment. Have fun with it.