Elder in Leaf
Forage that fir Mark!
blisters on young fir trees can be popped to harvest resin
Wild G&T, with douglas fir. (Image: ©Galloway Wild Foods.com)
Drinker's Guide To Conifers
While juniper is the only conifer that must legally be present in gin, many of its evergreen cousins can also contribute to a great gin drinking experience. The fresh, sharp aromatics and mouth-feel that juniper brings to the party comes mostly from compounds called terpenes, and in particular limonene and pinene. These are present in most other conifers, from garden familiars like rosemary, to christmas trees, to plantation sitka spruce. These compounds contribute delicious flavours of citrus fruits and "piney-freshness" to gin cocktails, infusions and mixers.
As conifers are usually easy to find and identify and often come in huge numbers, they are a great resource for drunken botany experiments. With the important exception of highly poisonous (though easily recognised) yew trees, and common sense considerations around dosage, there isn't too much that can go wrong - even for novice foragers. Compared to other areas of foraging, conifers are low risk and high reward.
It's not me, it's Yew
If you want to play with conifers in your drinks, start by learning to recognise and avoid yew trees, which contain high levels of a seriously toxic compound called taxine in every part except the orange flesh of their berries. Look for yew trees in graveyards, wood edges and even in sculpted garden hedges, where their bright orange fruits (technically cones) are quite distinctive in the autumn. As the fruits aren't always present, you should also learn to recognise its deep green, short, flattened needles that grow along either side of its twigs. This needle arrangement also occurs on some very tasty varieties of fir, so be extra careful when harvesting those. Yew needles tend to be shorter and lack the distinctive pair of parallel silver lines on their underside, which are paler and less glossy than their tops.
Once you have mastered yew trees, you can really relax and enjoy all other needled conifers without the need to accurately identify them right down to species. I say needled conifers, as I recommend being much more circumspect about eating any of the cypress (Cupressaceae) family of conifers, that are characterised by scaly, more coral-like greenery, rather than true needles [see photo].
Most common of these in the UK is leylandii (Cupressus × leyland), which is often used for hedging or wind-breaks because of its fast-growing, dense foliage. Although juniper and redwoods fall within this family and have some great edible uses, many Cupressaceae can be strongly allergenic. I recommend focussing your initial explorations on the 4 families of needled conifers described below.
Edible Parts of Needled Conifers
Needles - Uusally rich in flavour and vitamin C all year round, but especially the tender young needles in spring, at which point they are soft enough to eat in salads. For drinks, infuse them into hot water, alcohol, syrups, vinegars or directly into sugar. See species notes for the most rewarding needles to play with.
Resin - Not to be confused with sap (which can't be tapped in any quantity from conifers), resin is the super-sticky fluid that drips from wounds and soon sets hard. Conifer resin is rich in terpenes that make it phenomenally flavoursome but not particularly good for you in high dosage. A tiny amount can elevate a drink to dizzy heights, but overdo it and it might taste like toilet cleaner! It can be harvested either by breaking pieces of set resin from the damaged bark, by gathering the dripping resin from fresh wounds, or (most fun of all!) by popping blisters of liquid resin on certain species - see us doing this on young douglas fir in this video. The best way to do this is to squeeze the blisters into beech or sorrel leaves, then fold them up and put them in your basket. Resinous leaves can then be added one at a time to recipes like this one for 'Noble Fir'.
Pollen - Male cones (sometimes referred to as "catkins") can produce an abundance of sweet pollen in the spring which can be harvested by placing a bag over the cones and shaking. The flavour is mild but the pollen contains testosterone which is very good for balancing androgen/estrogen levels - and can boost your sex-drive. Aphrodisiac cocktail anyone..?! Try coating the rim of the glass with it and wait for the fireworks...
Cones - Tend to be woody and lacking in flavour, but can contain small, nutritious seeds if you can beat the squirrels to them. Don't expect anything nearly as large as commercially available pine nuts!
Bark - The soft, moist, white inner bark (cambium) of several conifers is edible and high in vitamins A and C. It can be eaten raw in slices as a snack or dried and ground up into a powder for use as a flour, but I'm yet to find any exciting drinks uses for it.
Recommended Conifers for Drinks
Provided you follow my guidelines on yew and cypress above, you really don't need to accurately identify every conifer you want to play with. Connect with them by rubbing the needles vigorously between the palms of your hands and smelling. You'll be amazed by the variety of distinct citrus flavours they give off, which can also help with identification. When you find one you like, it's nice to put a name to it, so below is a brief guide to identifying key families, with my thoughts on the most rewarding species.
Pine (Pinus spp) - Needles grow in clusters of 2, 3 or 5 which are "bundled" at the base. Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is the most common pine in the UK - harvest the very young needles in spring. Unlike other conifers described here, mature scots pine needles don't have much flavour at all. Other varieties of white and black pine can be extremely aromatic all year round. Try pounding them with sugar and/or infusing into simple syrups.
Spruce (Picea spp)- Stiff, sharp needles are square or triangular in cross-section and grow individually, all around branches. When detached, the needles will leave a rough, woody projection on the branch. Spruce tips picked in the spring are soft and much brighter green, emerging from rust coloured, papery parcels and exploding with lemony freshness - one of the greatest gifts of spring. Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are most common in the UK - often planted in vast monoculture plantations. Norway spruce (Picea abies) is also quite common. You'll know you have a spruce tree pretty quickly, as the twigs are seriously jaggy, especially when you rub them in your palms to awaken their aroma. But its well worth doing - the mature needles have a rich complex flavour, with more bass-notes than many of their cousins, great for infusing into mead or with bitters in foraged vermouth.
Fir (Abies spp) - Flexible, flat needles grow individually from branches, usually on a flat plane. Look for 2 parallel silver lines on the underside of each needle. The cones of fir trees grow pointing upwards which differentiates it for most other conifer families. This is my favourite conifer family for flavours that work well with gin, especially Noble Fir (Abies procera) and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii - not a 'fir' in a strict scientific sense, but near enough). The needles of both provide fantastic grapefruit - tangerine flavours at all stages of growth, though spring growth is most vibrant [see photo]. I've had great success with syrups, shrubs, meads and direct infusion into gin.
Larch (Larix spp) - Identified by clusters of narrow needles growing from woody nubs, larch is one of very few conifer varieties that shed their needles in the autumn. Harvest the needles in spring and early summer, when they are bright green and have a sharp, sorrel-like flavour. Most larch trees you encounter in plantations will be European larch (Larix decidua), which is currently being removed in large numbers from forestry plantations due to its susceptibility to a fungal disease (Phytophthora ramorum). In parks and cities you may also encounter ornamental larch varieties, with attractive blue-green needles.
Drink Your Christmas Tree
Its quite likely that your christmas tree will be a spruce, fir or pine, and so long as it hasn't been sprayed with needle glue or fire-retardent (check with the retailer), there is no reason that you can't make it into a delicious christmas cocktail. Don't wait until you are throwing it out after christmas though - it will be dried up and flavourless, even if it still smells piney. Rather, use those bits that you trim off during the ritual struggle to make it look perfect. Needles infused in gin will have imparted much of their flavour in a few days, so a tree erected in advent can be part of your christmas morning tipple...