The tips, with a mellow pine scent and crisp flavor were used to make a molasses-sweetened brew, not so much for the crew’s entertainment on their long ocean voyages, but to prevent scurvy, a ravaging disease caused by a vitamin C deficiency.
Once common among sailors, scurvy was known as “the plague of the sea.” Its advanced stages were ghastly, signaled by open wounds, loss of teeth, jaundice (yellow skin), fever and death. Captain Cook has been hailed as the conqueror of scurvy.
Today, spruce tips are used to flavor all sorts of things, from shortbreads and mayonnaise to vinegars and beer. I even found a recipe for pickled spruce tips, which I’ll share with you at the end.
Recently, local foodie Suzanne Bobo has been working on a recipe for a popular spruce tip jelly, and is offering a workshop for those who want to learn how to make this unique preserve.
“I’ve been making jams and jellies since I was a little girl growing up in Colorado,” said Suzanne after we met up at the Saturday farmer’s market. “I learned a lot at my mother’s elbow.
The idea for spruce tip jelly jelled during a boat trip back in 2010. “We were celebrating my birthday with friends on a Galley Gourmet dinner cruise and the conversation centered around food. Somehow the topic of spruce tip jelly came up and I thought, ‘wow, that sounds awesome!’”
Suzanne’s research-writer skills kicked in and she began looking into spruce tip jelly recipes. She was surprised to learn that it’s very popular in France, and discovered an old recipe in a French cooking magazine.
After converting the recipe to modern ingredients, Suzanne made a batch. “It didn’t turn out like I expected, though.”
Then she learned that local cooks were making spruce tip jelly, including the late Susan Emerson. “I contacted her husband, Tom Emerson and he gave me what he thought was her original recipe.”
Suzanne followed the steps and came up with a much-improved version. Or so she thought.
“I contacted French chef Joel Chenet who agreed to give it a taste test. He told me the spruce flavor was there, but it was far, far away. Not what he remembered.”
After a few more kitchen experiments, Suzanne has come up with a recipe she is pleased with and is sharing her talents with a Spruce Tip Jelly class on Friday, June 20, 2-4 p.m. Cost is $50 (plus tax and a gallon of spruce tips). Also, participants walk away with five jars of jelly. The class is limited to six persons and pre-registration is necessary. Call 942-7872 for more information.
Workshop attendees will learn more than how to make spruce-tip jelly. The same technique applies to making fireweed jelly.
Meanwhile, what do you look for when picking spruce tips? Suzanne says to focus on the new growth tips, bursting from their brown paper jackets.
“The new tips are lime green colored, soft and almost silky,” she said.
This is a perfect time to harvest spruce tips and Pasagshak is a good place to find them. But no matter where you go, if the trees are too far along, look for trees that are in direct sunlight. According to Suzanne, the trees around Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park produce a jelly that is amber-colored, while other places make a pale green jelly.
When cooking spruce tips, the whole house and its residents seem to benefit.
“The infusion seems to clean your house. It helps people with colds as it cleans and sanitizes the air,” said Bobo.
What does spruce tip jelly taste like?
“It’s like walking through a forest after a gentle rain and smelling that sweet fragrance,” she added.
Pickled Spruce Tips
1/2 pound spruce tips
1 and 1/3-cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon peppercorns
Remove the papery caps from the spruce tips then wash and blot dry. Combine the vinegar, black peppercorns and salt to a pan and heat until the salt dissolves. Put the cleaned spruce tips in a large jar and top with the warm vinegar mix. Cover the jar and stir every day for a week then transfer the spruce tips to a clean, sterilized jar, top with the vinegar mix, seal and store in the fridge for at least two months to mature before using. These make an excellent replacement for capers and are wonderful on salads, or added to sauces as flavoring.
Still, one big question remains: Would Captain Cook have approved of this recipe?
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