By Valerie Rogotzke, Master Gardener
“I do remember it,” cried Emma; “I perfectly remember it.—Talking about spruce-beer.—Oh! yes—Mr. Knightley and I both saying we liked it, and Mr. Elton’s seeming resolved to learn to like it too.”
In Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma (Chapter 40), the characters, Emma and Harriet, recount an earlier conversation about a beverage largely unknown to us in the United States today: spruce beer. This isn’t something that can be found on our grocery shelves, but it was well known in the 1800s as both a delicious drink and a health aide to sailors for the prevention of scurvy. In fact, the earliest stories of medicinal spruce beer and other teas made from evergreens date back to the 1535 expedition of Jacques Cartier through the New World. As the story goes, Native Americans shared the secret of consuming evergreens with Cartier, and he used this to save the lives of his sailors long before the practice of bringing lemons and limes on board was standard naval practice.
Indeed, the soft, vividly colored spruce tips that emerge in springtime still make for good eats! Vitamin C is a key nutrient in spruce, so it should not be surprising to discover that the flavor is slightly sour in addition to being herbal and occasionally a tad bitter. As with any vegetable or fruit, there’s always a range of flavors, as some spruce tips might taste more piney and others more sour. I find that blue spruces appeal the most to my palate, but I know others who prefer Norway spruce or white spruce.
Spruce is a complex flavor that can swing from sweet to savory, and late spring is the time to go out and find the soft, new tips on your trees. If you don’t have a spruce tree in your yard, they are easily found throughout Minnesota for foraging. As with all foraging, remember to forage thoughtfully, leaving many new spruce tips on the trees.
A FEW WAYS TO TRY SPRUCE TIPS:
1) FRESH ON SALADS. Toss soft, new spruce tips onto a spring or summer
salad. Fresh tips can be stored in an airtight container in a fridge for a few
weeks, and can also be frozen for later use.
2) BAKED ON FISH. Or grilled, if you’re the type to wrap a fish in aluminum foil
and throw it over the coals. Season the fish (salmon works particularly well)
with salt, pepper, a few slices of lemon, and a handful of spruce tips before
3) SPRUCE TEA. Pour boiled water over spruce tips and drink! Can be served
hot or cold, sweetened or unsweetened.
4) SPRUCE SYRUP. Prepare a simple syrup by boiling equal parts sugar and
water to dissolve the sugar crystals. Then turn the temperature down low, toss
in a handful of spruce tips, and simmer to bring out the spruce flavor. Let cool.
This syrup can be added to seltzer water for a spruce soda or used as a mixer
in cocktails. Citrus flavors pair well with spruce, but so do other herbal flavors.
5) SPRUCE ICE CREAM. This is a masterpiece recipe created by Minnesota’s
own Alan Bergo, A.K.A. The Forager Chef. His cookbook The Forager’s Book
of Flora: Recipes and Techniques for Edible Plants from Garden, Field, and
Forest (2021) is now available. Bergo shares his spruce tip ice recipe
his website Forager Chef (foragerchef.com). As with all new foods, try this first in small quantities to make sure you have no allergies. If you’ve never tried spruce tips before, be bold and adventurous! You’ll be surprised at what you discover in your own backyard.