Breathing in the sweet aroma of your freshly cut Christmas tree, have you ever thought that it smells good enough to eat? Laura Waters did.
A few years ago, the owner of Snowdon House Gourmet & Gifts in North Saanich, on Vancouver Island, was cutting the lawn between the 2,500 Douglas fir trees on her four-acre farm when she suddenly shifted gears. She had originally purchased the property in 2009 with the intention of growing Christmas trees, which take six years to mature. When the trees are young, the grass between them has to be kept short, making for an arduous task in the sweltering summer sun.
“I was hot and bothered,” Waters recalls, laughing. “I had been mowing for hours and I thought, ‘All I’m going to do is cut these things down. There’s something wrong with that picture. There has to be a way to use the trees that is sustainable and renewable.’” Then it came to her. She hopped off the mower, cut down a branch from a young tree, and headed into her commercial kitchen, where she tossed the fir tips into a pot of bubbling strawberries. Once destined to be chopped down, lit up for a few weeks, and then unceremoniously chipped, the trees became the main ingredient in a collection of delightful food items.
Today, back in the small building on her farm that doubles as a retail space and workshop, Waters has an entire section dedicated to fir products, alongside an assortment of other gourmet “convenience foods” (think bread mixes that only call for a bottle of fir essence and don’t need to rise). It’s Thanksgiving Monday morning, but Waters is busy making paper to package her products for the holiday season, the sound of opera and the smell of fresh bread filling the air.
“Fir has such a unique flavour and it is totally West Coast,” Waters says, as she takes a break and pours a glass of effervescent fir essence. “I’ve always loved the trees.” The bubbly is refreshing—clean and crisp and not too Christmassy. It has a hint of citrus with floral notes and a touch of tang on the backend. “A lot of people are serving it as a nonalcoholic champagne,” Waters says. “It also makes a wicked drink with gin.” Wine tours, popular on the Saanich Peninsula, have started adding stops at Snowdon House thanks to the popularity of the product.
Also available here is a savoury Fir and Fire Brie Topper, perfect on a piece of hearty fir and juniper bread. Or there is the selection of fir- and fruit-infused vinegars—blueberry, strawberry, peach, and crabapple are available this season. Waters explains that she uses white vinegar instead of balsamic because it is sulphite-free and made in Canada. “We’re unique in the competitive vinegar market,” she explains, “and our vinegars are highly drinkable.”
Waters is mum when asked how the fir flavour is extracted; she will only say that the soft, supple tips are harvested in a small window when they burst in the spring. What happens next is a trade secret. However, she is keen to teach people how to cook with fir and runs monthly classes on the farm. After her initial experiment with the strawberries, Waters did some research and learned that fir is high in Vitamin C and is used medicinally in tea by indigenous people. This is her third year selling Douglas fir products, and she’s still learning and modifying her recipes. “It’s a very complex, layered flavour,” she explains. “It tends to accentuate every other flavour to its fullest. The minute you pair it with something else, it changes again. It makes it fun.”
Snowdon House products can be found in about 40 stores across British Columbia, including some Whole Foods locations. Waters will also be at a few holiday markets, and is welcoming visitors to the farm for sample Saturdays—an opportunity to taste the Douglas fir products, and pick up the perfect hostess gift.
Read more about unique finds in British Columbia.