Of all of the changes wrought by the industrialization of our food supply, one has gone mostly unnoticed: We’ve forgotten how to find and cook with wild ingredients. The domesticated kin of wild plants dominates our cuisine, and that’s too bad—the range of flavors in native plants is astonishingly diverse, exceeding the offerings of even the most bountiful farmers’ markets. In the Northwest, no flavor speaks more clearly of spring than that of Douglas fir tips.
For several weeks each year, Douglas firs sprout tender new growth on the end of each branch. Called fir tips, they’re sweet from the sugar that the tree has been saving through the winter, and their evergreen aromatics are overlaid with a delicate, ethereal note of mandarin orange. It’s an incredible, evocative flavor.
Connie Green, the owner of Wine Forest Wild Mushrooms, first introduced me to fir tips. She grew up in Florida, where she learned to forage from her grandparents. When she moved to California 30 years ago with her late husband, an Estonian, he taught her how to hunt for wild mushrooms. His passion for foraging came from his own childhood traditions, amplified by a refugee’s survival instinct. “People used to forage out of hunger,” Green explains. “Wild foods are traditionally associated with deprivation, not luxury.”
That may be true, but my interest in fir tips was purely sybaritic. Knowing of my obsession with wild foods, Green sent me a bag of fir tips to try last spring. I was hooked instantly. I took some of the tips—and a few needles—and blended them with pure olive oil until the mixture was smooth. I refrigerated it for two days, then strained it through a coffee filter. The resulting oil was vibrantly green and aromatic. Seasoned with champagne vinegar and salt, it made a great sauce for proteins as diverse as salmon and bison.
Fir tips can be simmered in simple syrup, ground with sugar or salt, infused into vinegar, baked with wild mushrooms, tossed in a salad, or chopped and sprinkled across cured salmon as a substitute for dill.
Another terrific way to use fir tips is in martinis. Chop the tips and add them to a bottle of gin or vodka. When the flavor has developed, which usually takes a few days, use the liqueur to make a martini, perhaps adding a twist of orange and a little lemon juice to the shaker. Then add a fir tip to the finished drink. “It looks like a tree floating around in the glass,” says Green.
If you don’t want to infuse your own booze, Clear Creek Distillery (clearcreekdistillery.com) in Oregon sells Douglas Fir Eau de Vie. For a nonalcoholic drink, Berkeley-based Juniper Ridge (juniperridge.com) makes a fabulous tea from dried and ground fir tips and sells it at the Saturday Berkeley and San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers’ markets.
Picking fir tips doesn’t harm the tree—it’s actually a kind of pruning. When you snap off the soft new growth at the end of the branch, the tree will send out two new tips, which causes lateral growth. In order to reach the bottom branches, you’ll need to find younger trees. But don’t pick from the very top of the tree, and don’t take more than a third of the tips from any one tree.
Douglas firs are one of the most common trees in the Bay Area; you can find them on many regional hiking trails, including those in Point Reyes onMount Tamalpais, and at El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve. As with any wild food, it’s a good idea to forage with someone who’s familiar with the local ecology. There are several classes on wildcrafting in the Bay Area.
Foraging in public parks is usually forbidden, although rules vary by park and rangers often interpret them differently. This approach doesn’t thrill Green. “The message is that nature is not there for us to touch,” she says, “as if somehow humans contaminate it. It’s insidious and insulting: We’ve become foreigners in the landscape that once fed us.”