For several years the spruce tip oil served at one of my favorite restaurants has had me in thrall. This vivid green liquid is drizzled across a mélange of grains and roasted vegetables and has astringent, slightly resinous flavor. I had never heard of it before, and it had a mystique that added to my fascination with it. How did one get oil from spruce tips? One doesn’t of course. The soft green tips are used to infuse olive oil, giving the oil its vibrant color and tart flavor.
It has been on my list to try to make it and I thought I had missed the season once again, when on a bike ride I saw flashes of chartreuse in the woods. Trees in the sun had matured and the buds opened, but there were still plenty of young tips in the shade. I went gathering. It was time consuming, but a very pleasant way to consume time. I am now tip obsessed. After starting several jars of oil, I came across recipes for flavored salt, syrup, a dip, pickled tips to be used as one would use capers, and a rhubarb-spruce tip cooler. Many had trod the spruce tip path before me, and it was inspiring.
My kitchen is now a regular spruce tip product factory. The fridge has luminous bottles of oil slowly getting greener, pickled tips float in ball jars, the counter has a big bowl of tips ready for something, and a stainless stock pot simmers on the stove making syrup. The syrup recipes I found had some variation in process, but all consistently said equal parts tips, water and sugar. Pretty easy. Sugar is not a household staple, but I felt honey would overwhelm the flavor of the tips, so bought some Muscovado sugar. I dumped all three ingredients in the pot, brought it to the edge of boiling, and now it is simmering and reducing. Then I will strain it, and jar it up. When I make it next, I will also try less or no sugar.
Like most gathering adventures, collecting is half, or more than half, the fun. It was a hot day when I picked, and the sun filtered through the tree canopy, illuminating the tender tips. It was still, but not quiet. I had the company of thousands of buzzing mosquitoes, and the brook nearby played an accompaniment to a screeching raven. I nibbled an occasional tip. They are tart, resinous, and two or three were enough for me, but the promise they held kept me picking more.
It will be a few weeks before the syrup and oil are ready for tasting, and by then the tips on the trees will have matured. But right now they are soft and bright. Time to leave the factory behind for an hour of calm while I pick tips, pinching them off one-by-one, listen to the woods, and plan spruce tip-based menus.
For more on spruce tips: