Baker, chef and author Julia Georgallis teaches us how to cook with our Christmas trees — with these inspired dishes, discover just how tasty a tree can be

Christmas trees are a pretty big deal; we’ve loved them for a long time. Except, nowadays, there isn’t really so much love for them. They have become commodities of Christmas, treated as nothing more than an expendable crop. Eating your tree is not only a way of extending the already-short shelf life of something that has become so inappropriately disposable, but is also an opportunity to really scrutinise the keeping of  Christmas trees in the first place.

I’ll be honest with you, it took some work to make something delicious from evergreens. My friend and designer Lauren Davies and I blitzed, blended, smashed and fried. We put some pine needles in a tea strainer and it tasted like wee. We made a weird grass-flavoured scotch egg that made us feel really ill. But we got there in the end: curing, smoking, infusing, baking and pickling our way to a handful of delicious recipes using nuts, berries and needles.

I hope you enjoy this set of recipes as much as I have enjoyed serving them up over the past few winters.

20181116 ChristmasTrees 375 scaled e1636727313786 - How to eat your Christmas tree: Delicious and sustainable festive recipes

About the recipes

During the course of this book, I have included recipes for cooking with fir, spruce and pine. These three plants taste different but are interchangeable in each of the recipes that includes them. Fir, spruce and pine are by far the most commonly bought and reliably edible trees. You can eat their needles and use their bark in cooking, although neither of these is particularly pleasant (although not poisonous) if eaten raw. 

How to prepare your tree needles

Spruce, fir and pine needles can be very sharp, so care must be taken not to hurt your fingers while preparing them for cooking. You will need a pair of large, sharp scissors and a big bowl. Snip some larger branches from your tree. Wash the branches under cold running water, making sure that you get rid of all possible bits of mud and dirt. You may notice that there are balls of sap, but sap is safe to eat, as are the dried buds which might be at the end of some of the branches. Turn the branch upside down over a bowl so that the needles make a chevron shape. Using scissors, cut upwards so that the needles fall directly into the bowl. I usually then wash the snipped needles once more before using them.

Is this going to kill me?

If you stick to pine, fir and spruce, no. However, other common types of trees bought for Christmas include cedar and cypress — both of which are inedible. Yew trees can often be mistaken for Christmas trees but they are INCREDIBLY POISONOUS so don’t eat them! Like with any sort of foraging, please make sure you know exactly which plant you are eating before you try it! It should also be noted that all Christmas tree needles are sharp and so you should avoid eating uncooked, un-chopped needles — they’re a bit like fishbones and can be just as dangerous. 

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - How to eat your Christmas tree: Delicious and sustainable festive recipes

Gin Pulled Lamb with Thyme & Alcoholic Apricots 

An unlikely match, but floral juniper flavours complement sweet apricots really well. It is an easy dish to prepare, you just need to season it well and have enough patience to roast the lamb for up to 8 hours, until the meat falls off the bone. When buying lamb, make sure that it has been responsibly sourced by talking to your butcher — buy the best quality that you can afford or is available to you. No meat? Jackfruit is a remarkable vegan substitute for lamb as it “pulls apart” well.

Serves 10

Cooking time: 20 minutes, plus overnight infusing, then 7–8 hours cooking

Ingredients

300g apricots

A bottle of really nice gin

1.5kg lamb shoulder or jackfruit

2 onions

3 garlic cloves

A bunch of thyme sprigs

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

500ml water

150g unsalted butter

Lots of olive oil

Method

1. In a bowl, cover the apricots with 375ml of the gin and leave to infuse overnight. 

2. The next day, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/gas 6).

3 Arrange the lamb on a large baking tray, add the onions, garlic, half the thyme sprigs and season well. 

4. Add the water, cover with kitchen foil and roast in the oven for 4 hours, until the meat starts to fall off the bone.

5. Add the butter, a generous glug of gin and the rest of the thyme to the roasted lamb. Turn the oven down to 140°C (275°F/gas 1/2). 

6. Return to the oven for a further 3–4 hours, mixing every hour so that the fat is evenly distributed. 

7. Add the marinated apricots about 20 minutes before the meat is ready, so that they heat up but don’t burn.

8. When the meat pulls apart easily, add olive oil and a splash more gin.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - How to eat your Christmas tree: Delicious and sustainable festive recipes

Christmas-Cured Fish

Cured fish is wonderful served as a starter, for breakfast or in a very decadent sandwich. Trout is a great option for curing, as is other sustainable fish, such as monkfish, halibut, or something recommended by your local fishmonger. Use the freshest fish you can find, making sure it hasn’t been frozen previously.

Cooking time: 30 minutes + minimum 24 hours, maximum

Curing time: 36 hours for 2kg of fish

Ingredients

2kg filleted fish of your choice

350g fir or spruce needles or

700g pine needles (or a combination)

770g demerara sugar

500g table salt

2 small beetroots, grated

Grated zest of 3 lemons

Method

1. Before you cure, it is good practice to freeze the fish as this kills any bacteria that might be present. You can “flash freeze” for 24 hours, but I like to freeze the fish for about a week. 

2. Defrost it in the refrigerator a few hours before you start curing. Prepare the needles (see above).

3. To make the cure, mix the sugar, salt, grated beetroot, lemon zest and needles together.

4. Lay out some cling film on a flat surface and sprinkle a generous layer of the curing mixture over it, making sure it is roughly the length and width of the fillet.

5. You might need an extra pair of hands for this next step: Lay the fish over the first layer of cure, then pack the top and sides of the fillet with the rest of the cure and wrap tightly in cling film, making sure it is totally covered in the cure mixture.

6. Place the fish on a baking tray underneath something heavy, and refrigerate between 24 and 36 hours. Halfway through the curing process, turn the fish over, remembering to place it under something heavy again. 

7. When it is ready to eat, wash off the cure and make sure that there are no needles left on the fish. Slice thinly. This keeps in the refrigerator for up to five days.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - How to eat your Christmas tree: Delicious and sustainable festive recipes

Christmas Tree & Ginger Ice Cream

This is hands down my favourite recipe and I have shared it generously over the years with anyone who will listen. I like to use blue spruce, as I think it is the champion of conifers (it tastes a little like vanilla), but, as with all these recipes, you can interchange  the type of Christmas tree you use depending on what you have access to.

Makes 950g of ice cream

Cooking time: 2 hours prep with an ice-cream maker, 4 hours without one

Ingredients

300g blue spruce needles (see above for how to prepare) or 400g any other type of Christmas tree needles

510ml double cream

170ml whole (full-fat) milk (ideally Jersey milk)

170g caster sugar

8 egg yolks

5 pieces stem ginger, chopped

Method

1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan whisk the cream, milk, sugar and egg yolks until well combined. Add the needles to the cream mixture and heat gently, stirring continuously so that the mixture doesn’t catch on the bottom or sides of the pan.

2. After 15 minutes, turn the heat up to medium. When bubbles begin to appear around the edge of the pan, the custard is ready and can be removed from the heat.

3. Sieve the mixture two or three times through a fine sieve (fine mesh strainer) so that none of the needles end up in the final ice cream mixture. If using an ice-cream maker, add the sieved mixture to the churning pot and begin the churning process. 

4. Before it freezes, add the chopped stem ginger and continue churning until it is frozen. Transfer the frozen ice cream to the freezer. If you don’t own an ice-cream maker, transfer the mixture to a tub or dish and leave to cool completely. Once cooled, transfer to the freezer. Stir the mixture every hour and when it is beginning to freeze (about 2 hours) but not completely solid, add the chopped stem ginger and mix well. 

5. Continue stirring each hour until the ice cream is completely frozen. This will take about 4 hours. Once it is frozen, keep it in the freezer until ready to serve.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - How to eat your Christmas tree: Delicious and sustainable festive recipes

Christmas tree booze infusions

A note about drinking Christmas trees: Christmas trees and evergreens could now be considered a bar staple, with mixologists using their woody flavours in cocktails. But this is nothing new; many mountain communities have been using flavours such as spruce, fir and juniper in distilled spirits for generations — take Alpine génépy or Scandinavian schnaps. Indeed, juniper is the key component of gin. Again, these recipes are a good way of using up any dry Christmas trees and, as with the cordial, you can use the bark as well as the needles. Making these tipples with pine, fir or spruce trees in the days after Christmas means you’ll have festive‑flavoured booze to last you well into the New Year. 

Makes 1 litre of alcohol

Equipment

2 x 1-litre glass jars or bottles with a wide neck and lid — a Kilner or Mason jar is ideal

Ingredients

1 litre good-quality vodka or gin

2 large handfuls of spruce, fir or pine (branches included!)

Spicy Infusion (best made with fir)

4 days to infuse

1 tsp crushed cardamom pods

3 cinnamon sticks

3 star anise

Botanical Infusion (best made with spruce)

1 week to infuse

A small handful of rosemary

1/2 tsp of crushed juniper berries

a small handful of sage leaves

Uplifting Infusion (best made with pine) 

1 week to infuse

Peel of 1/2 lemon

2.5cm piece of ginger, finely chopped peel of 1/2 orange

Method

1. Sterilise the glass jars or bottles and wash the Christmas tree branches. As you are not cutting the needles from the branches, it is imperative that you do this thoroughly as bits of dirt might still be left on the bark.

2. Add your washed tree branch, vodka or gin and chosen infusions to the sterilised jar. Seal the jar, ensuring it is airtight and leave it somewhere dark for up to a week. Your booze will turn anything from yellow to red to brown as it infuses. 

3. Strain the infused booze through a fine sieve or fine mesh strainer, and discard everything else.

4. Pour into a fresh sterilised bottle. Once infused, it keeps for a long time!

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - How to eat your Christmas tree: Delicious and sustainable festive recipes

How to Eat Your Christmas Tree by Julia Georgallis
Photography by Lizzie Mayson
Published by Hardie Grant, £12