Eat your Christmas tree? That is so Jersey
Mixologist Danny Childs combines freshly foraged blueberries, local brandy and house-made amaro in this Tru Blu summer cocktail. Cherry Hill Courier-Post
You can mulch your Christmas tree.
You can compost your Christmas tree.
You can wrap strands of popcorn and cranberries around your Christmas tree and leave it in the backyard for all the winter creatures to enjoy.
But why let the squirrels have all the fun? You can eat your Christmas tree, too.
Now we don't mean to suggest that you will be carving up a pine bough and serving it with sap for dinner. And a pine needle salad doesn't sound too appealing either.
In the right hands, however, a judicious amount of pine can add a signature Jersey flavor to certain dishes and beverages.
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"People give it a look, like, 'Can I eat this?' said Danny Childs, mixologist at The Farm & Fisherman Tavern in Cherry Hill. "And we're like, 'Yeah, it grows right behind the parking lot of the restaurant.' It's fun to see them try it for the first time."
At The Farm & Fisherman, Childs incorporates pine needles into a variety of cocktails throughout the year. Pine is a key ingredient in his seasonal amari, bitter tonics that serve as a foundation to some of his craft cocktails. See Childs in action in the video above.
"More times than not," Childs said, "I'm using pine or juniper or cedar in the drink itself."
At Park Place Restaurant in Merchantville, you can enjoy seared scallops with roasted porcini, essence of White Pine and pine ash. Or turbot, poached in olive oil and served with the ash of White and Pitch pines.
"It's about tying it all together, for me," said Chef/owner Phil Manganero. "Mushrooms grow under the pine trees, so it makes sense to me."
What better place than South Jersey to put pine on the menu? In the land of the Pine Barrens, consuming the evergreen makes you a true locavore.
Native Pitch Pine trees cover about 700,000 acres in New Jersey, according to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a non-profit advocacy organization for the natural, historical and cultural resources of the Pine Barrens.
Pinelands National Reserve, home to many types of evergreen as well as deciduous trees, encompasses 1.1 million acres designated for special growth management rules by the Pinelands Protection Act of 1979 and the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978.
But it's not just a South Jersey thing. Pitch Pines and other evergreens are abundant throughout New Jersey. Pascal & Sabine in Asbury Park offers a cranberry & frangipane tart with a pine needle shortbread crust and candied pistachios.
Chefs such as Manganero make use of backyard specimens all year long.
"I use all kinds," Manganero said. "New growth in the spring, dead branches in the winter for ash. I cook with ferns, mushrooms. I live right on the edge of the Pinelands, so to be able to use the pine tree in my food feels right to me."
Culinary appreciation of pine goes beyond Jersey borders.
A BBC report from 2012 described Noma's freeze-dried pine needles as having a "citrusy tang."
Restaurant magazine declared Noma the best restaurant in the world in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. As of 2019, Noma ranks second in the world, having been outranked by Mirazur, a restaurant in Menton, France.
"I never tried it elsewhere," Childs said. "I've always been curious about what grows in our backyard, so that's how it started for me."
As with all foraging, you need to know what you're doing when you're collecting pine to steep for tea or to use as an ingredient. Childs chooses White Pine and indigenous Pitch Pine.
"Most evergreens are safe," he said, "but don't get yew."
Yew is an evergreen with soft, red berries and is commonly used as a hedge in landscaping. You've probably seen it in many suburban neighborhoods. Do NOT eat Yew. It's poisonous and can quickly kill you.
But home cooks need not shy away from pine, if they're feeling adventurous.
"You can add it to a basic sugar cookie recipe," Manganero said, "and it also makes a nice tea, with sugar and honey."
For the winter, Childs offers a drink named the Pine Barrens, with gin, cranberry jam, pine-infused winter amaro and lime.
"Pine adds tannic structure, like a barrel would," Childs said, referring to oak barrels used in wine-making. "It almost adds spice notes. It's a little more green than rosemary. It can be a local substitute for cinnamon or allspice; it replaces those kinds of notes."
As a non-alcoholic option, Childs makes pine soda.
"I boil the pine needles to make a tea, then add water to dilute it and sugar to feed the bacteria," Childs said. "I use a ginger mother, like a sourdough mother, to start fermentation, and then bottle it."
Childs also makes "pine-cello," a Jersey pine version of limoncello.
"Pine is very citrus-y," he said, "so it has tartness from that."
Flying Fish Brewing Company in Somerdale often pays tribute to the Garden State with its beer, with such varieties as Blueberry Braggot Honey Ale and the boardwalk-inspired Salt and Sea.
For the company's 20th anniversary in 2016, founder Gene Muller decided to honor every exit of the New Jersey Turnpike with its own ale. For Exit 5, he wanted to celebrate the Pinelands Reserve.
"Brewers would tell you, 'Never again with the pine needles,' '' Muller said, because the sappy needles tended to jam up the works. "If you've ever tried to sweep them off the deck, you know, because they just stick there because of the resin."
But Muller was happy with the results. Pinelands Sour Forage Ale also included local wintergreen and goldenrod. Muller described it as herbaceous, with a minty character.
"It's traditional for people to do a spruce beer for the holidays," Muller said. "Spruce tips give it a licorice character."
Covering every exit on the 'Pike proved a challenge.
"Down South, it was a bit easier, because of the agriculture," Muller said, "but up North, we had to do a little dance. Like, for Exit 13, we went with chocolate, because Newark's port exports a lot of chocolate."
So, sure, that's a stretch for Newark. But not for the Pine Barrens, where those rustling, fragrant needles can add a bracing, wintry note to food and drink.
Go: Park Place Cafe & Restaurant, 7 E. Park Ave., Merchantville. Info: 856-662-2200 or parkplacecafeandrestaurant.com.
Go: The Farm and Fisherman Tavern, 1442 Marlton Pike East, Cherry Hill. Info: 856-356-2282 or fandftavern.com.
Go: Flying Fish Brewing Company, 900 Kennedy Blvd., Somerdale. Info: 856-504-3442 or flyingfish.com.