Unless you’re in a far more northern climate than I am here in Palermo, spruce tip season has probably passed you by for this year. But as with all fleeting spring foods, there’s always next year. Spring has such an ephemeral nature. You wait so long for it to finally appear, and when it does it feels that if you blink you might miss some of its best shows. Apple trees, for example, seem to have just begun blossoming when in a heartbeat the petals are flying away on the wind, done for the season.
I only discovered spruce tips for myself last year, and I fell for their bright, lemony flavor. They are high in vitamin C, but I enjoy them for the variety they add to my diet, not just because of their specific vitamin and mineral content.
I nearly missed the window to harvest spruce tips here at Ridge Pond Farm, mistakenly going by the time I harvested last year. This year they were ready a full week earlier — somewhat surprising, considering our long winter, but the heat in early May was probably a factor. I realized my error just in time to harvest enough to preserve and enjoy spruce tips for at least a few more weeks, if not months.
The time to harvest spruce tips is when the bright green tips emerge from the ends of limbs, ideally just as the tips are shedding their brown tops or just after. While I nibble on a couple tips fresh while harvesting (they have a great texture I can only describe as “springy”), I process the tips in a couple of ways to preserve them.
Spruce tip sugar
My favorite way, and the way I first fell for them, is to make a spruce tip sugar. I put equal amounts by volume of spruce tips and sugar in the food processor and pulse until it makes a pretty, light green, sandy sugar. At first it’s very moist but will dry up as the sugar desiccates the spruce. This method is my favorite way to keep the sprucey, lemony flavor as vibrant as possible. I’ll sprinkle a little spruce tip sugar on yogurt, ice cream, fruit, anything I want to enhance with its sweet-sour flavor and fresh green color.
Spruce tip shortbread cookies
I also used the sugar to make spruce tip shortbread cookies. I briefly pulsed ½ cup of spruce tip sugar with ½ cup of all-purpose flour, ½ cup of whole wheat flour and a stick of butter, cut into small chunks, just until combined, or when a pinch of the mixture holds together. After turning that mixture onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, I gently pressed the mix into a rectangle a consistent half-inch thick.
I cut the shortbread into 16 pieces, carefully separating them, and pricked each one a few times with a fork. I baked the cookies at 300° F for about 30 minutes, turning halfway through. I pulled them out just as the edges were starting to turn brown and waited, impatiently, until they cooled. Some of the lemony flavor gets cooked off in the oven, but they were sweet and delicious, with a hint of sprucey goodness.
Spruce tip vinegar
With another cup of the tips, I made spruce tip vinegar by combining the spruce with 2 cups of apple cider vinegar and a teaspoon of whole peppercorns. After 10 days I’ll strain out the tips and peppercorns and enjoy the vinegar in salad dressings all summer.
Spruce tip salt
The last method of preservation I used on this year’s spruce tips was to make spruce tip salt. I used pink Himalayan salt; the pink and green result is as attractive as it is delicious. Just equal amounts by volume of salt and spruce tips pulsed in the food processor and left to dry a few days in a shallow pan.
This salt can be used in pretty much anything. I’m looking forward to using it as a meat rub and as a finishing salt. With some of the salt I’m also going to make a fragrant body scrub for the shower. It will be a pleasure to smell the invigorating scent of spruce tips long after this spring’s tips have matured to a dark green like the rest of the tree, a reminder of spring’s fleeting gifts.
Cari Balbo runs Ridge Pond Farm and Herbals in Palermo with her husband. She writes about their life in an 1830 farmhouse and starting a new farm business at www.ridgepond.com. As a longtime student of herbs and their many benefits, Cari’s mission is to inspire others to integrate more herbs into their daily lives.