It’s January 4th, and soon I will bid au revoir to the pine in my sitting room.
What better way to say goodbye than to put it to work in the name of food? An open fire for chestnuts? A centrepiece on a BBQ? Heeding warnings from even the most pyromaniac of friends – pine being too oily and flammable for sedate burning – I took a little advice from the internet.
No-one is excited about cooking with pine. Some sources note that the leaves contain a carcinogenic resin when burned; others enthuse about the scent as a room freshener, but shudder at the thought of it touching anything they might eat. One American cookery forum’s members shouted that pine resin will ruin a BBQ, and that only the foolish would give it a whirl. The adage I heard most frequently was “smoking pine is good only for bees” (calming them before honey is collected).
Learnings are as follows: some pines are poisonous; a few are not, but to be sure you require a reference manual, in addition to strong understanding of the tree’s heritage; and they are full of highly flammable pine oil. However, delving a little deeper, a couple of well-renowned writers have not only tried using pine, but also even given recipes for it.
Harold McGee, suggests making gravlax with pine rather than dill, noting that burying salmon in pits of pine needles is probably an early precursor to the Norwegian gravlax we know today. However, if my pine really was poisonous, I didn’t want it infusing my salmon for 24-48 hours.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall encourages one to go to the seaside, dig a pit of hot coals, and cover with a bed of pine needles, cooking the mussels on top. Mussels come with their own protection in the form of their shells, so this sounded like a better idea. Similarly – in my method – the needles are not directly on the fire, and green, so there is not too much burning of the actual pine needles.
Results were surprising. After 10 minutes of baking over the fire, and the mussels were juicy, tender, with a faint hint of earthiness. Not identifiably pine, but an added woody warmth, reminiscent of fire sides and ales. Plus the fun of lighting a BBQ in January. And the juices at the bottom of the bowl were delicious. Worth it? Definitely.
Oh, and the house is still standing, and we all feel fine.
The method is simple. Before you start, it would be prudent to check your pine is not poisonous; I have no idea how.
On a cold grey January day, light a fire in a BBQ.
Take a foil container, with holes punched through the bottom, and spread a 1 inch thick layer of pine tree over the base.
Spread out the mussels over the pine needles, and place over the hot coals. Below is 1kg of mussels for 2 people.
Place another foil container (or tinfoil) over the top to keep in the smoke and steam. Wait 5 to 10 minutes, checking frequently to see if the mussels have opened. With needles this green, the pine smoked very gently rather than catching fire. Watch out, as dryer needles may catch.
Tip into a bowl and serve, with a slice of fresh bread and butter. And wine, if you like.