Friday, May 7, 2010

Pine (Pinus species)

I'll preface this with the warning not to eat or drink piney things if you are - or think you might be - pregnant. I don't know much about why this is, but there are strong warnings out there about it, so it seems only responsible to repeat them!

We're most of us in New Zealand not much used to thinking of pine as a herb, but in parts of the Northern hemisphere it has a long tradition of use in cuisine and medicine - notably amongst Native American nations and in and around Scandinavia.

By pine, I mean species in the Pinus genus (which are a subset of the larger group - conifers). In NZ there are no native Pinus. But we now have 10 or more introduced species. Pinus radiata, Scotch Pine and Douglas Fir are three of the most common.

This is certainly a mixed blessing, and in some parts they have become invasive pests. Ever since a friend talked to me about the way pine forests here slowly kill other trees and plants under them, and stop other things growing through the soil with their rain of needles,  I have found walking through pine forests a slightly eerie and sinister experience! There's just pine - and a strange silence.


Pine as a drink or a dessert

There are plenty of pine needle tea recipes on the internet. This is a great one, especially as it talks about the variations you can use - either steeping or boiling the pine, and using different parts of the tree. It all depends how strong you want it, and what particular flavour you're after.

(Note though that if you just use pine needles in your tea, not any other bits of pine, the colour of the tea will be very pale greenish, not reddish as this recipe says.)

Fresh pine needle tea has long been considered a cold remedy. That's partly because of all its vitamin C, but by all accounts it contains a lot of other good medicinal things as well.

As well as being medicinal, it's also a really yummy, fresh-tasting drink, hot or chilled, with a sweetener or without.

You can add it chilled to some fruit juice or concentrate as well. My family liked it with apple juice and/or lemon drink.

To add an interesting flavour to fruit-based dessert recipes, try stewing the fruit in pine tea, or making a sweet pine syrup


Pine in savoury dishes

For a start you can make pine vinegar to use in all sorts of dishes. And here I can't resist linking to Wildcrafty - one of my new favourite NZ blogs - and her post on making herbal vinegars in general.

Restaurant chefs in the Northern hemisphere have been doing interesting things with pine on their menus in recent years, so this could provide some inspiration as well. Pine needles (and baby cones) are good for smoking fish and meat, and for using in casseroles and marinades.

You can't really eat pine, so use it like Rosemary - i.e. let the flavour permeate the food then remove it. Pine is nice buddied up with other herbs including thyme, bay and juniper (another conifer although not a pine.)

You can also apparently eat the inner bark of pine - I haven't tried it, but would love to hear from anyone who has.

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