Could forest flavors be turned into viable taste-of-place products? For the last few months, I have been working on a business idea that would utilize flavors from forests, to draw attention to forest species and forest ecology.
I was born in the state of Vermont, which is named for its green hills. I grew up in a forested landscape, climbing trees, chewing spruce gum, and stealing tastes of maple sap from my neighbor’s sap buckets.
When I was a boy, I cherished the forests of Vermont, but I did not then appreciate how young they are, and how vulnerable they are to changes wrought by humans.
Now that I have traveled widely (mostly in East Asia) and learned about pressures on forests worldwide, I am eager to do something to help people better appreciate their value. Wood is a wonderful material, but trees and forest plants have so much more to offer than timber. They play a role in soil conservation, carbon sequestration, watershed protection, air quality, aesthetic beauty, and so much more. I grew up in a forested environment, but I realize that most people did not, and many people find forests unfamiliar, even scary. Lately, I have started to ponder whether I can help people experience forest plants directly through aroma and flavor, grabbing people’s attention and eliciting a little more concern for the health and preservation of forests.
From summer of 2020 and through the winter, I have been collecting samples from wild plants and learning about the available spectrum of flavors in my area.
I have been playing with fruits, plant extracts, and confectionery techniques, learning how to best capture natural flavors.
At the moment, I do not own land. I do, however, have access to my father’s property in the mountains of southern Vermont. These are the same forests that I explored in my youth. Focusing on conifers during the winter, I have found that four conifer species dominate my father’s land: balsam, red spruce, Eastern hemlock, and white pine. Reading Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, I learned that balsam and red spruce love to grow together. Indeed, these two species are thriving on my father’s property, in some places pushing up thick stands in openings between large sugar maples and other deciduous trees.
After researching their edibility, I experimented with the four conifer species. I found three of them especially suitable as candy flavors: balsam, red spruce, and Eastern hemlock. I produced candies in each flavor, and one that combines all three.
White pine, the king of our Eastern forests, is also edible, but so far I have been unable to find a good way to present its aromas, which can be harsh and oddly fishy. Tasting my white pine candies, my daughter and I agreed that the fishy smell accompanying the piney aromas was just too strange to be enjoyable. “It’s like salmon on a cedar plank.” This works for a fish, but not for a candy.
The other tree flavors, however, are quite promising. Reminiscent of gin, these candy flavors are complex, piney, and herbal. Each conifer produces a distinct flavor profile. Feedback from family and friends has been largely positive, but I cannot sell these until I sort out the rules surrounding starting a food-related business. Will these make it to market? Will anyone be interested in forest-flavored candies? How will I need to grow and diversify in order to make a sufficient income? My Cottage Eco blog will trace my progress in answering these questions.