For most people who celebrate Christmas, it would be hard to imagine the holiday without the iconic centerpiece of a decked out evergreen. Each year, an estimated 25-30 million Christmas trees are sold in the United States.
But if you’re increasingly worried about the carbon footprint of buying a real tree, there are ways you can recycle it once the holidays have passed. It can be used for mulch or even turned into something edible.
In October, UK-based artisan baker and cook Julia Georgallis published a compilation of more than 30 recipes in a new cookbook, “How to eat your Christmas tree,” to show readers how to give their tree new life after Dec. 25.
Georgallis sat down with Modern Farmer to talk about why she decided to create dozens of Christmas tree recipes and how a certain type of evergreen makes for an ideal ice cream flavor.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Modern Farmer: What’s the story behind this book?
Julia Georgallis: I started this project with a good friend of mine in 2015 who does a lot of work around sustainability. She asked me to collaborate with her on a project using that theme with food and we decided to collaborate on something Christmassy because we were in the lead up to Christmas. We initially wondered what we would do and initially weren’t even sure if you could eat your Christmas tree, but it turns out you can.
We started a supper club to cook up the recipes with Christmas trees. But a year later my friend was very pregnant and decided she didn’t want to be in the kitchen anymore. I ran the project on my own with the annual supper club for the rest of the years until 2019. Each year the recipes changed and I wanted to collate them. I enjoyed cooking them and I thought it would be better to share them outside my kitchen and spread the word a bit beyond the 25 people I host.
MF: You said leading up to this project that you initially weren’t sure if people could eat their Christmas trees. Why do you think this is something that’s not well known?
JG: I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot and I don’t know why it’s so weird because we eat and we forage so many different plants. Christmas is a lovely time of year, but I think that everything, including the tree, is now viewed as a commodity. With the Christmas tree, we’re essentially putting houseplants in our house. But we don’t think of them as houseplants anymore. We had rituals based in nature and now we’re just very monetized.
MF: In this book, you talk about how you want it to open up a broader conversation around sustainability. How did you try to do that?
JG: Eating Christmas trees isn’t going to save the planet, but this book draws on the idea that you just need to start thinking about how you might want to reuse, recycle and re-appropriate everything and that includes your Christmas tree. It’s also about making sustainable changes.
I mention in the book that you can use a houseplant rather than a Christmas tree. I’ve used bamboo in some of the recipes because it’s kind of like the Chinese, Korean [or] Japanese equivalent of the Western Christmas tree. There are also sections on how to make Christmas a little bit more sustainable. I tell you where you can get a Christmas tree from a sustainable source. I also offer plant-based alternatives to my meat recipes and encourage readers to purchase meat that’s been sustainably farmed if they so choose to eat meat.
MF: When you were doing your research for the book, what stuck out to you when it came to the environmental footprint of Christmas trees?
JG: The environmental footprint is quite large. If we let 40 million trees grow each year instead of cutting them down at Christmas and sticking them in our living rooms, they could absorb 880 million tonnes of carbon, which is the equivalent to global air traffic in one year or the impact of taking all cars in the UK off the road for the next five years. I know that there are other things that contribute more to our emissions, but these things are up there and I think it’s quite a big deal.
MF: In the book you use recipes that involve pine, fir and spruce trees, as you explain that other types such as cedar and cypress are poisonous to eat. What are the flavor profiles of those three trees and how did you choose trees for certain recipes?
JG : Fir is really zesty and really grassy. I’ve used it in things like pickles, and things that need a sharper taste. Spruce is really surprising. It’s not as grassy, it’s more “orangey.” The spruce in the ice cream I make actually gives it a vanilla taste. The blue spruce ice cream I make is actually my favorite recipe. And doing my research, what I ended up finding out is some of the earlier vanilla extracts, like artificial flavorings, had notes of spruce in them. Then pine doesn’t taste like it smells. It’s very delicate and almost floral. In some of the recipes if I give the option of all three, I say if you’re using pine, you need to use a lot more of it.
The following recipes are from How to eat your Christmas tree (Hardie Grant, Oct. 2020), a new cookbook by Julia Georgallis and is reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Cured fish is wonderful for starters (appetizers), breakfast, or in a very decadent sandwich. Trout is a great option for curing or use 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 before buying.
Makes: 2 kg (4 lb 8 oz) of fish
Preparation time: 30 minutes + minimum 24 hours, maximum 36 hours for curing time
-2 kg (4 lb 8 oz) filleted fish of your choice
-350 g (12 oz) fir or spruce needles or 700 g (1 lb 9 oz) pine needles (or a combination)
-770 g (1 lb 11 oz/ 31⁄3 cups) demerara sugar
-500 g (1 lb 2 oz/ 11⁄2 cups) table salt
-2 small beetroots (beets), grated
-grated zest of 3 lemons
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. Defrost it in the refrigerator a few hours before you start curing.
Prepare the 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 this 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.
To make the cure, mix the sugar, salt, grated beetroot, lemon zest and needles together.
Lay out some cling film (plastic wrap) 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.
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.
Place the fish on a baking tray (sheet pan) 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.
When it is ready to eat, wash off the cure and make sure there are no needles left on the fish. Slice thinly.
This keeps in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Christmas Tree Pickles
I love a good pickle. Either use infused Christmas Tree Vinegar or apple cider vinegar to make these or use fresh needles and leave to pickle for a couple of extra weeks. Use whichever vegetable you like and is in season. Carrots and cucumbers work well and add beetroot (beets) for some extra colour.
Makes: Enough to fill a 2-litre (70-fl oz/8-cup) jar
Preparation time: 3 days + 1 month (minimum 5 days) pickling time
Equipment: a 2-litre (70-fl oz/8-cups) glass jar with a lid, a Kilner or Mason jar is ideal
-A handful of spruce, pine or fir needles
-2 litres (70 fl oz/8 cups) either Christmas Tree Vinegar (page 44) or apple cider vinegar
-50 g (2 oz/1⁄2 cup) salt flakes
-900 g (2 lb/4 cups) demerara sugar
-700 g (1 lb 9 oz) ribbons of beetroot (beets), carrots, cucumber (preferably a mix of all three)
-a handful of juniper berries
Sterilize the jar and prepare the needles (see cured fish recipe for the instructions on this).
In a saucepan, heat up the vinegar, salt and sugar until just boiling.
Arrange the beetroot, carrots, cucumber, needles and juniper berries at the bottom of the jar and pour in the pickling liquid.
Tightly seal the jar. Turn it upside down once, quickly, to get rid of any extra air. Once cooled, either leave in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator. Leave for a minimum of 5 days before opening. Keep for 2 weeks once opened.
& Ginger Ice Cream
This is hands down my favorite recipe from the supper club, 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: 950 g (2 lb 2 oz) of ice cream
Preparation Time: 2 hours with an ice-cream maker, 4 hours without one
-300 g (101⁄2 oz) blue spruce needles
or 400 g (14 oz)
any other type of Christmas tree needles
-510 ml (17 fl oz/2 cups) double (heavy) cream
-170 ml (6 fl oz/3/4 cup) whole (full-fat) milk (ideally Jersey milk)
-170 g (6 oz/3/4 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
-8 egg yolks
-5 pieces stem ginger, chopped
Prepare the needles (see first cured fish recipe for this info).
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.