This spring we put on our mad scientist hats and headed into the woods. Our prey: fir needles. Our purpose: jelly. The fir-jelly project was a long time coming. We discovered that fir needles were edible a few years ago, after reading about a Douglas-fir-Champagne sorbet made (once!) by our friends at Olympic Mountain Ice Cream. Since then, we've been following the world of tree-needle-cuisine from afar... scoping the occasional blog post or Herbfarm dinner menu for recipe ideas. New growth on Douglas-fir trees in the spring:
When we finally got around to cooking fir tips, it took us a while to come up with a jelly that met our exacting criteria: A) it jelled and B) it tasted the way the needles smelled when we were cooking them. And believe us: boiling Douglas-fir needles smell absolutely and amazingly delicious, like the most refreshing drink you can imagine. On their own, the needles taste terrible, pitchy and bitter and nothing like the way they smell, so getting the flavor to match the aroma was a fun challenge. We're really happy with the final result, which is citrusy and minty, with just a hint of an evergreen aftertaste. (or "finish," as we say here in oysterland.) Making the jelly is really simple: we pick the new needles in the spring, chop them, boil them, let them steep overnight, drain them, and boil them again, this time with pectin, lemon juice, and sugar. Then we pour the jelly into jars.
We tried making the jelly without commercial pectin (a la Christine Ferber), but ultimately we had to add so much apple pectin that it masked the flavor of the needles. So we stuck with SureJel. A splash of lemon juice is also a key ingredient, as the jelly won't set without it, but don't go thinking that the jelly's citrus flavor is due to the added lemon. The needles are in fact really high in Vitamin-C... we read that sailors used to make a tonic out of tree needles (Sitka Spruce & Doug-fir) to ward off scurvy. All chopped up:
All jelled up:
Douglas-fir jelly on a cracker on top of a Douglas-fir cookie on top of a Douglas-fir table!:
So far, customers have reported melting the jelly into syrups for drinks (think: tonic water) and loving the jelly on croissants. We're currently selling the jelly online, in our retail store, and at our two Seattle-area farmers markets.