Editor’s note: OPB’s video series “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest. Now we’re taking the same guiding principles to a new platform: Email. We’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and botanist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem every week. This week she unpacks the myriad ways to eat a Christmas tree.
It’s the holiday season (how’d it get here so fast? What even is time??). For many of us, that means lots of decorative cookies, fruitcake gifts and various log-shaped cakes, but this year we pose a challenge: Take a cue from Euell Gibbons and eat your Christmas tree. Almost all of the Northwest’s conifers are wholly edible, and many are downright delicious. A Douglas fir even produces its own sugary substance that was relished by Indigenous Northwesterners. What is this substance called? Read on to find out!
Small bites: A stinker of a hazelnut pest, fixing fish habitat in the Rogue River watershed, and a new way to think about farm to table
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
Mapping the way we eat.
We know that most of our food comes from farms, but where do these crops actually come from? A new map from Visual Capitalist shows the historic origins of our crops, offering an interesting perspective on what “traditional” cuisine looks like. (Spoiler: marinara sauce and sriracha are both as American as apple pie — and apples are actually from Turkey.)
Restoration in the Rogue basin.
The Rogue River watershed has long been a battlefield where the cattle ranchers go head to head with fish advocates. (And recall 1995′s failed ballot measure #38, borne of the Oregon Clean Stream Initiative, which intended to fence waterways to keep livestock from befouling them.) New management approaches, as reported by Jefferson Public Radio’s Roman Battaglia and KLCC’s Jasmine Lewin, show that nonprofit partners (in this case, Rogue River Watershed Council and Klamath Siskiyou Oak Network, respectively) can work with state agencies to make habitat restoration dreams a reality by supporting habitats beyond the riparian zone.
A real stinker plaguing Oregon’s orchards.
ou may have noticed them in your own garden, sucking the juice from your backyard blackberries: marmorated stink bugs. OPB’s “Think Out Loud” looked at the struggles Oregon farmers are facing battling these invasive insects. You can help Oregon State University track the extent of the problem around the state — check out this information page and follow the link to report sightings.
A different way to enjoy a Christmas tree
When people visualize the Great Northwest, it’s not usually the high deserts of Central Oregon, the palouse prairies of the Columbia River Plateau, or the wet meadows of the Willamette Valley that we see in our mind’s eye; we usually think of lush and mossy evergreen forests dominated by Douglas fir — Oregon’s state tree and sigil of the region. Having coniferous forests may mean that our autumns aren’t the blaze of color that our friends east of the Mississippi enjoy, but we definitely have winter beauty on lock. Except for larches, whose needles turn yellow and drop in the winter, our conifers are evergreen — beautiful and fragrant all year long.
Even if you don’t deck the halls and all that, being around Christmas trees can be good for humans — recent research suggests the alkaloids, terpenes and polyphenols abundant in conifers show important promise in treating an array of chronic conditions like diabetes and cancer. Walking in forests doesn’t just reduce stress because of the views; forest bathing (or shinrin-yoku, as it’s known in Japan) has multiple therapeutic effects. One Japanese study has shown that inhaling the smell of cedarwood reduces blood pressure and heart rate, and another even showed that smelling the volatile compounds in hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa, closely related to the C. lawsoniana, or Port Orford cedar that grows along the southern Oregon coast) increased human natural killer (NK) cell activity, showing promise in the fight against cancer. It bears mention here that one Northwest conifer species, Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), has for decades been used to produce the cancer-fighting drug taxol. All parts of the tree (except for the fleshy aril) are deadly poisonous — don’t eat them!
Thanks to their preference for a damp climate and tolerance of poor soils, Douglas firs are the most commonly grown trees in Oregon, composing roughly half of all Christmas trees. And although a Doug fir can reach astounding heights, the most interesting parts of its life happen underground, away from prying eyes, where the mycelial networks of fungal symbionts allow trees to communicate with one another.
Pine nuts, spruce tips and sugar from a Douglas fir
If you’ve ever walked near a riverbank in late summer, you’ve no doubt smelled the spicy, burnt molasses smell of black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), whose buds exude the aromatic resin similar to the biblical Balm of Gilead. The aromatic compounds found in our conifers are just as profoundly fragrant; besides the piney smell that we associate with clean floors and car fresheners, conifers’ organic compounds are the same ones responsible for the aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, citrus and balsam. Next time you’re walking around the Klamath Mountains, rub a Jeffrey pine’s (Pinus jeffreyi) needles and note the smell of butterscotch. A grand fir (Abies grandis) smells like tangerine peel; western redcedar (Thuja plicata) leaves are redolent of dried pineapple.
Conifers have an almost altruistic ability to provide food year-round. In early spring, when conifer buds are thrumming with energy and bursting from their papery scales, harvest the tender green tips for flavoring salt, sugar and spirits. Spruce tips make a divine jelly for spreading on buttered scones or brushing on a warm lemon pound cake. The tender cones of a springtime spruce are also edible, as previously seen at Noma in Copenhagen, barbecued like corn on the cob.
In late spring, collect juicy-green baby pine cones and simmer them in sugar syrup until they’re tender and mahogany-brown and the syrup is as thick as honey. The resulting varenye (a style of preserves from the Caucasus) is an old folk remedy for respiratory ailments. The resulting pine syrup, known as mugolio in Italian (and available at better-stocked gourmet shops and specialty grocers), makes an unexpected and complex drizzle for cocktails, mascarpone or ice cream.
Beneath a tree’s bark flows the phloem — the tree’s thin syrup-blood — and when giant conifer aphids (Cinara pseudotsuga) feed on Douglas fir sap on the hot and dry summer days east of the Cascades, the honeydew they produce crystallizes into pale white-gold melezitose on the twigs and needles. Indigenous Northwesterners collected this manna with relish, if they could beat the bears to it. (No exaggeration here; crystallized tree sap is what some scholars believe was the original Biblical manna from heaven.) Anything left behind ends up back in the soil, where nitrogen-fixing bacteria turn it back into food for the tree that shed the sugar in the first place.
This year, instead of chucking it to the curb when the holiday cheer winds down, try eating your Christmas tree instead. Blend the needles with butter into a soft green paste; steep them in vinegar in a dark cupboard; or blitz them in the food processor with kosher salt or sugar, and get more seasoned eating from the season’s greetings.
Recipe: Apfelkuchen (Apple Cake) with Hazelnut Streusel
Of all the ways to eat a tree, fruits and nuts take the cake. And while fruitcake may get a bad rap, so many fruity-nutty cakes are ideal accompaniments to the season. There’s James Beard’s boozy persimmon bread, Italian panettone, and of course, old-fashioned German apfelkuchen. Some apfelkuchen, like the ones made by Germans from Russia, is more like an apple custard pie in a sweet bread shell (and is divine, believe us!), and some, like versunkener apfelkuchen, are simple vanilla cakes with sliced apples sunken into the batter (hence the name). This coffee cake-like version comes together more easily, but with its crunchy and spicy-sweet hazelnut streusel topping, is pretty enough for guests.
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 4 tbsp cold unsalted butter
- ½ cup roasted hazelnuts, peeled and chopped
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp fine sea salt
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ¾ cup sour cream or plain whole milk yogurt, at room temperature
- 6 tbsp (¾ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup roasted hazelnuts, peeled and coarsely chopped
- ¾ lb sweet-tart and crisp apples (roughly 1 large apple), peeled, cored, and diced
- Preheat the oven to 350° F and grease a 9″ springform pan or round baking dish.
- Make the streusel: using a food processor (or a fork or pastry cutter), pulse together the flour, sugars, cinnamon and butter until you reach the consistency of fine breadcrumbs. Scrape the mixture into a bowl and stir in the hazelnuts. Set in the refrigerator while you prepare the cake.
- Make the cake: in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon and salt.
- Whisk together the eggs, vanilla and sour cream or yogurt until thoroughly combined.
- Add the butter and sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer outfitted with the paddle attachment. Beat the mixture on medium speed for 5 minutes, until light and fluffy, then scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add half the flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined, then scrape down the sides of the bowl again. Add half the sour cream/egg mixture and beat again until just combined. Repeat with the remaining flour and sour cream mixtures.
- Fold in the chopped apples with the rubber spatula, then scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan, smoothing the top. Crumble the hazelnut streusel mix on top and bake for 55-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for an hour and serve.