Local foraging expert Miche Genest harvesting spruce tips, one of the North’s first culinary delights of the spring season. Photos: Cathie Archbould

The first wave of green has swept through the territory–the poplars and birches are in leaf, the grass is bright and springy, and the dandelions have that juicy, early-season perkiness that makes you think of spring salads or spanakopita. 

Tiny brown fists have appeared at the end of each branch on the baby spruce beside my mailbox. In a few days the bright green tips will thrust out, looking like little paint brushes wearing papery brown hats.  

My spruce tree basks in a sunny southern exposure, so it’s slightly ahead of the game. 

But soon, all the spruce throughout the territory will burst into bud, sometime between now and the middle of June—exactly when depends on latitude and altitude. 

According to my foraging diary, in 2014 we were still picking spruce tips near Whitehorse on June 8; in 2016, our season had almost ended on May 30. 

For those as yet uninitiated, spruce tips are one of those truly magical wild northern foods. They’re packed with Vitamin C and have been used by Indigenous people to soothe sore throats and combat flu for centuries.

Cooks love them for their light, citrusy, slightly resinous flavour. They’re the last word in versatile: you can pickle spruce tips, candy them, combine them with sugar or salt as a seasoning, infuse them in oil or vinegar, make jelly or syrup, eat them fresh in salads, pastas or stir-fries, and use them as a herb in everything from focaccia to pan-cooked grouse. 

The best time to pick spruce tips is when they’re still in that bright-green paintbrush phase. Knock off the brown husk by shaking the branch as you pick. (If you end up with a few husks in the mix, don’t worry.) When the bright green tips grow longer and the needles spring outwards the flavour becomes too pronounced for eating fresh, but they’re still excellent to cook with. 

Pick away from roads and highways or areas that may have been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. Remember, spruce tips are the tree’s new growth. For the health of the tree it’s best to avoid picking the tip at the very end of the branch, focussing on those that grow along on the sides. Pick no more than 20 percent of the tips on one tree, or one in five of those on any given branch.  Bypass the young trees, they need to grow.

Preserve spruce tips by freezing them or air-drying on a baking sheet away from direct sunlight. 

Finally, if you’re new to spruce tips, start small. Pick two or three cups and get to know them gradually.  

Tip: Spruce tip salt or sugar is a great place to begin.

Spruce Tip Salt or Sugar

Spruce Tip Salt or Sugar

Yield: 1/2 cup

Ingredients

  • 4 Tbsp minced fresh spruce tips
  • 4 Tbsp granulated sugar OR 4 Tbsp kosher salt

Instructions

Mix ingredients together and store in a small jar, stirring occasionally the first few days to avoid clumping. 

Sprinkle salt on steaks or fish filets before cooking; incorporate 2 Tbsp sugar into your favourite shortbread recipe. 

Spruce Tip Jelly

Spruce Tip Jelly

Yield: 4 to 5 cups

Serve spruce tip jelly on toast with butter; in thumb-print cookies; on a charcuterie platter; with smoked salmon and cream cheese; or to accompany any wild meat or fish, whether braised, grilled, roasted or fried.   

Ingredients

  • 3 cups fresh or frozen spruce tips
  • 3 cups water
  • ¼ cup lemon juice (one whole lemon)
  • 2 ¼ cups granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 ½ Tbsp (40 g) Certo Light pectin crystals (3/4 of a package)

Instructions

  1. Coarsely chop spruce tips to help release their flavour. Pour water into a medium-sized pot and bring to the boil over high heat. Add spruce tips, reduce heat to medium low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat and cool infusion to room temperature. Transfer to a clean container, cover and put in the fridge to steep for several hours or overnight. The longer it steeps, the stronger the flavour. 
  3. Before starting on the jelly, prepare jars and lids. Sterilize 5 250 mL jars or 10 125 mL jars (or a combination of both) in a boiling water bath for 12 minutes. Turn off heat and leave jars in the water until you’re ready to fill them. Cover lids (but not rings) with very hot water. 
  4. Strain spruce tip infusion through a sieve lined with cheesecloth into a large, clean pot. Gather up the edges of the cheesecloth, twist, and squeeze to extract all the juice from the spruce tips. 
  5. Stir pectin into ¼ cup sugar. Whisk into spruce tip infusion and stir in lemon juice. Bring to the boil over high heat. Whisk in remaining sugar and boil on high for 1 minute. (The mixture will bubble up vigorously, hence the big pot.) 
  6. Remove from heat. Stir and skim jelly for 2 or 3 minutes before pouring into prepared jars. Wipe lids of jars with a cloth or paper towel dipped in hot water before sealing. Screw rings on “finger tight.”
  7. Process filled jars in a boiling water bath for 12 minutes. 
  8. Remove jars from water, cool on a rack and listen for the pop that tells you the lids have sealed. Store any unsealed jars in the fridge and use jelly within a month. Sealed jars of jelly will keep in the cupboard for a year. 

Notes

A note on pectin: 

I’ve made my best jelly yet using Certo Light pectin crystals. The jelly is nicely set, the colour is a glowing lemony-amber, and the flavour is pure Yukon forest in the spring.

Certo Light is a low-methoxyl pectin that requires less sugar in the recipe for gelling. Too much sugar can overwhelm the taste of the spruce tips. 

The Canadian Living Test Kitchen advises that Certo Light and Bernardin No Sugar Needed Pectin can be used interchangeably—worth a try. 

Pomona’s Universal Pectin, another low-methoxyl pectin, uses both calcium and pectin powder in a two-step process; follow the directions in the box. (For this recipe you’ll need 3 tsp each of pectin powder and calcium water.)

 

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