Living on the coast we do not get the deep snow of central Maine, but this has been one of the most snowless years I can recall. I have been longing for snow, cold, ice, and that crispest of seasons, winter. There was a time that sentiment would have drawn incredulous looks, but now I am more often greeted with a conspiratorial smile and a proud “Me, too!” The winter people are gaining in numbers.
Winter is on my mind, but mud is underfoot. The temperatures have been going up and down in typical New England fashion, with record-breaking highs thankfully interrupted by days below freezing. Forget thermometer and brown ground and get outside for a little easy foraging. It may be pale winter this year, but some comforting winter tastes can be found even without the snow. And should we get a welcome pile of the light and fluffy, pine needle tea is easy to make, and never buried below the snow.
Pine needle tea has a long history of use. There are stories of North American indigenous people generously showing European colonists how to make it and use it to fend off scurvy.
There is an impressive list of health benefits attributed to this tea, and I cannot vouch for them. Simmering up a batch on a snowless day and leaning my face over the saucepan to inhale deeply fills me with winter spirit, and that I can vouch for.
Living in the pine tree state one need not go far to find white pine, Pinus strobus. The older the needles, the stronger the tea, and the more vitamin C it will have. Two year old needles can have up to three times the vitamin C of new growth.The taste is correspondingly stronger and more bitter. I like the milder taste of newer needles, and often add a bit of the maple syrup we make each spring.
Pine needle tea
Pine needle tea is easy to make, there really is no recipe, just a few tips.
Gather a few handfuls of white pine needles, young or old. (If you get sticky sap on your fingers rub a bit of butter over the area, it will slide right off)
Rinse the needles in clean water, and snip them into a glass bowl. Discard the brown fasicle sheath that connects each bundle (fasicle) of five needles, as well as twigs and any brown needles.
Pour boiling water over them, watch as the green color gets vibrant and bright. I find this very mesmerizing. Marine algae does this as well, even more dramatically.
Let steep 5 minutes, strain into a mug, and if you wish, lace with a bit of maple syrup. For a stronger brew, dump the needles with the hot water into a saucepan and simmer 10 minutes, just do not let it boil as that will release terpenes for a stronger turpentine flavor, as well as steam away beneficial vitamin C.
This tea is uplifting alone, but add some crackers with a sweet and tart cranberry spread and you will have an elevenses snack fit for Winnie-the-Pooh and Bilbo Baggins, true elevenses connoisseurs. Cranberries can also be foraged in winter, in fact I like gathering them best after they have been frozen. (Cranberry picking in winter). They become more tender and the sugar concentration increases, as with grapes picked in winter for making ice wine. This is another do-not-measure, let the ingredients tell you what to do non-recipe. Between the pine tea and the cranberries with oranges, this is a triple Vitamin C treat.
Pick a few cups of cranberries, wash and remove any grass or bits.
Pulse in a food processor. If you have frozen your cranberries, pulsing while still frozen works well, too. Add a bit of orange juice, some red onion, and something to make it sweet. Triple sec or Gran Marnier work, as do honey or agave syrup. Pulse some more, taste, and when it reaches the right sweet-tart proportion you like, you are done.
Pour a cup of tea, spread a few crackers with the cranberry mixture, and sit outside face to the sky. Winter! Please come soon winter. Until it does, savor the flavor of the season.
Note: it may have worked! Weatherman is calling for six inches tonight!