For me, the holidays are like a collection of aromas and flavors, each with their own warm associations and awakening sense of sacredness to the season. Orange, cloves, ginger and cinnamon; the alcoholic perfume of brandy; the heady smoke of frankincense and myrrh. But I think there is nothing that smells more like Christmas than the earthy perfume of the evergreen – like a deep breath of forest on a crisp and frosty morning.
Perhaps it is because, for me, this time of year is all about the evergreen. It takes me back to the ancient days when we celebrated the movements of the sun and the moon and gave thanks for the simplicity of things that reminded us of life when days were dark and cold. Then, it was the evergreen that was the star of the festivities – the sacred tree that filled our hearts with the hope and joy that only green things can.
Throughout the winter, I find myself drawn to them. I instinctively walk up to the hemlock forest behind my house, slipping their green fronds between my fingers, inhaling their mysterious perfume, getting my hands sticky with their fragrant resin. I remember a teacher once telling me that the evergreens, with all their many fine needles, were like the nervous system of the earth – connecting us to all the subtle vibrations of the stars and the universe. She asked us all to place our backs against a mammoth white pine we were gathered around, and it was as though you could feel some strange and wonderful energy flowing through you, moving from earth to heaven and back again. “When you feel disconnected from yourself, ungrounded, cut off from the heavens – you only need visit a pine,” she said.
Trees have often been likened to the lungs of the world and I think evergreens especially so. Their needles and branches are filled with a sticky sap like resin whose volatile oils are clearing and antiseptic to our own lungs, helping us to breath. They are warming and moving and even the smell alone seems to clear one’s head, allowing one to awaken, to be more present – as though a fog were suddenly cleared away.
While I have always admired the evergreens – the spruces, the hemlocks, the firs, the pines – and always especially loved the tradition of honoring them, bringing one indoors and making my house feel alive with the spirits of the forest – I have never done much playing with them for medicine or food. I’m not sure how I missed such an opportunity. Their perfume has so much potential to brighten up the kitchen, their medicine so much potential to heal.
Yesterday, I made my first amends towards remedying such an awful oversight: a sprue and pine needle tea, simple and fresh and lovely – with a plate of spruce needle and sea salt shortbread. I sat by my tree and enjoyed them in the fading afternoon light, feeling grateful on so many levels, for the many gifts of our beautiful needled friends.
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped evergreen needles (spruce, pine, fir, hemlock are all fine)
- 1 quart water
Place your water and evergreen needles into a saucepan over high heat with a lid on. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn off the flame and let the tea infuse for 20 – 30 minutes. Pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove the needles and enjoy, sweetened with a touch of honey if you wish.
Evergreen and Sea Salt Shortbread Cookies
Adapted from the shortbread recipe in River Cottage Everyday, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Placed in a little bag and tied with a green ribbon, these would make a lovely holiday gift. Makes about 12 cookies.
- 2/3 cup unsalted butter, cut into small chunks and softened
- 1/4 cup unrefined organic cane sugar
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped evergreen needles (I used spruce, but pine would be nice too)
- 1/2 teaspoon course sea salt
- 3/4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
- 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
- 2/3 cup organic corn starch
Beat the butter, sugar until pale and creamy. Add in the evergreen needles and sea salt and mix well. Sift in the flours and cornstarch, using a fork to stir together into a smooth dough. (You can also do all this in a food processor using a dough blade).
Place the dough between two sheets of parchment paper, and roll to about 1/4 inch thickness. Transfer to the fridge and chill for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Use a cookie cutter dipped in flour to cut cookies into desired shapes. Any flour left over should be re-rolled between parchment and chilled for an additional 20 minutes before cutting and baking. Place cookies on a parchment paper lined baking tray and bake until just lightly colored and firm to the touch.
Remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little extra sugar and salt and let cool for a few minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely. These can also be frozen for later use and keep splendidly that way.