As I write, It’s the end of the first week in May. The freak dump of snow is behind us, the birds are back, and folks have been spotting croci on sunny hillsides for several days now. Tiny brown buds are already swelling at the ends of spruce branches. Chances are that by the time you read this, those buds will have burst into the bright-green flames of fresh new spruce needles, packed tightly together under a papery husk.
Soon we will be harvesting spruce tips.
The popularity of spruce tips as a seasoning, a tea, a medicine and in jellies and syrups has grown so much over the past few years that it’s even more important that we remember these tips are the tree’s new growth. It’s a good time to remind ourselves of the protocols of sustainable harvesting: take one in every six tips, leave the one at the very end of the branch in place, gather from healthy trees and spread your harvest over several trees in several areas.
Finally, take only what you think you will use. There will be more next year.
Some harvesters like to flick the little husk off the end of the tip as they pick—sometimes I do, but generally I don’t bother because the husks will be ground into flakes for salts and sugars, or strained out in teas, jellies and syrups.
Once they’re harvested, I usually air-dry a few cups of spruce tips and store them in a glass jar—they make an excellent substitute for rosemary. (Try them in sourdough focaccia.) The rest I pack into resealable bags and freeze, taking them out as needed.
The spruce tip season is so short that there’s always a bit of anxiety about getting out there soon enough, but once the spruce tips are picked and dried, or bagged and frozen, the cook is free to experiment with abandon, all year long. Here are a few pantry items to be starting with.
To Air-Dry Spruce Tips
- Spread tips in a single layer on baking sheets. If drying frozen (thawed) tips, pat them dry in a tea towel first and turn often for the first few days.
- Dry in a cool room away from direct sunlight, for about a week, turning occasionally until tips are the texture of dried rosemary, from 5 to 7 days. Store in jars in a cool, dark cupboard.
- 1/4 cup fresh, dried, or frozen (thawed) spruce tips, minced or chopped in a spice grinder
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar or kosher salt
- Mix tips and sugar or salt thoroughly in a small bowl. Decant into a glass jar and store in a cool, dark cupboard. Will keep indefinitely. Note that when made with fresh or frozen (thawed) spruce tips, the mixture tends to clump—simply break up with a fork before using.
Note: This recipe is for either spruce tip sugar or spruce tip salt, because the proportions and the method are the same.
Use sugar in spruce tip shortbreads; add salt to rubs for grilled meat or fish.
Use as a topping for ice cream, combine with honey and pour over baklava or, of course, add to your favourite gin cocktail.
- 2 cups spruce tips, fresh or frozen (no need to thaw)
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups sugar
- Bring sugar and water to the boil. Add spruce tips, reduce heat to medium and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
- Taste: if the flavour is pronounced enough for you, strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth, bring to the boil in a clean saucepan and pour into sterilized jars. Cool, refrigerate and use within a month.
- For a stronger flavour, cool the syrup to room temperature and refrigerate overnight. Next day bring to the boil again, strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth and return to the boil in a clean saucepan. Pour into sterilized jars. Cool, refrigerate and use within a month.
- 3 Tbsp yellow mustard seeds
- 3 Tbsp black mustard seeds
- 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup white wine
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 Tbsp birch syrup
- 1 Tbsp spruce tips, fresh or frozen (thawed)
- Combine mustard seeds, wine and vinegar in a small bowl. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 48 hours.
- Pour mustard seed mixture into the bowl of the food processor and grind until thick but still grainy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add birch syrup and salt, and pulse to combine. Add spruce tips and pulse until tips are thoroughly minced.
- Pour into a dry, sterilized glass jar and refrigerate. Use within two months.
Note: the mustard seeds marinate in wine and vinegar for 48 hours before you make the mustard.