Still little known, although used for centuries, young balsam fir shoots are quietly making their way to our taste buds thanks to small Quebec companies that incorporate them into their products. This is the case of Jérémie Postel, forest lover and ambassador of culinary heritage, whom we accompanied during a day of picking in the Estrie flora, near Sutton.

“What is the difference between a fir tree and a spruce?” Jérémie Postel poses this tricky question to those who come every spring to pick young balsam fir shoots with him. And also to the people who take part in the interpretive hikes in the forest that he leads as part of a partnership with the Traktour agency. “I realized that a lot of Quebecers don’t know that much about their forests and the different species of softwoods,” says this native Frenchman, born in Falaise, in the department of Calvados, and who settled in Quebec in 2011, after meeting a Quebecer.

For picking, this knowledge is essential, since it is the flat needles of balsam fir (and not the triangular needles of spruce trees) that he macerates to produce his fir honey or that he dries, then reduces to powder, to flavor its jams. The one who grew up in a family of bakers made this choice after experimenting with pine, hemlock, spruce and fir. In taste, the latter stood out from the others.

However, it was through spruce that he discovered the taste potential of softwoods. In the Pyrenees, a shepherdess friend made him taste an ancestral recipe that he quickly adopted: young spruce shoots macerated in sugar in the sun. His desire to consume only natural sugars later led him to revise this recipe to adapt it to honey.

At the end of each spring, the man who also works as a pruner-climber spends about ten days picking the young shoots in the valleys around Sutton. Joining him are a few pickers, some paid in money or in exchange for services, other volunteers, attracted by Jérémie’s philosophy and by the zenitude of picking, a gesture which in his eyes is poetic and meditative, he underlines. he, sitting cross-legged on a carpet of pine needles.

Thus, it is not only honey and jam that he puts in jars in his business launched at the end of 2018, but his love of the forest that he hopes to communicate to the taste buds. “For me, the attachment we can have to what surrounds us passes a lot through the mouth. One of our primary needs is to feed ourselves. When people like what they eat, they are more sensitive to what’s behind it. »

In southern Quebec, it is at the end of spring, generally in mid-June, that the new shoots come out at the end of fir branches. This year, due to the heat wave that hit Quebec at the end of May, picking was moved up.

When we joined him on June 5, on a 300-acre private estate near Sutton, which he has frequented for ten years with the owner’s consent, Jérémie Postel had already been picking for a few days.

It is through a ritual that he welcomes us, as he does with all new pickers, a way of “laying himself in nature” by expressing his gratitude and sowing his intentions in a handful of tobacco that we will disperse. then in the territory. For him, it is also an opportunity to remember that we are on Abenaki territory, on unceded land. A doubly symbolic gesture given the place occupied by softwoods in the culinary, but above all medicinal, practices of the natives.

With a reusable bag attached to the waist, he guides the pickers in their harvest. “Make sure you go for the buds, make sure you go around the little trees,” he advises. The light green shoots are easily detached with the fingers, by a twisting movement at the base which allows the “cap” to be removed. If the base is not removed, the tree may believe that it still has its growth and that it must supply it with energy. To avoid harming its growth, we also do not pick them all. A shoot is left in place on each branch.

Once the base of the shoots changes to wood, the picking is over. It would then be too risky to injure the tree. The pickers thus have about ten days to collect the 200 kg of shoots needed to produce honey and jams. Considering that the days start late, to allow time for the dew to evaporate, and that picking is interrupted on rainy days, this leaves little time to harvest a whole year’s supply.

However, this urgency, we do not feel it in the forest. Picking remains a meditative gesture that requires paying attention to one tree at a time, for a long time, rather than foraging from one softwood to another. We see between the branches a small yellow spider weaving its web. On a shoot, a caterpillar has found shelter.

At the end of the day, the harvests are put in mesh bags and it is with the tips of their fingers covered in resin that the pickers carry them out of the forest, along a pond where a pair of ferocious geese and their young slide.

From there, Jérémie Postel goes to his studio, located in the heart of the village of Sutton. It shouldn’t be long. Due to their high energy load, the sprouts could burn if left bagged for too long. After being weighed, part of the harvest is put in vats where it will macerate for four months in honey from the Api farm in Potton.

At the end of the maceration, the honey is filtered three times, then put in a jar.

If he refuses to talk about quantities to protect his recipe, we do know that the harvest carried out by a novice picker that day will produce around 200 small jars of honey.

The remaining crops are put in the dryer, where they will remain for four to seven days. Reduced to powder, they can then be used throughout the year in fruit jams made according to an ancestral method called “à la royale”. To do this, Les Confiturières, in Granby, carry out traditional cooking, in cauldrons containing small quantities. This know-how preserves the texture of the fruits and their flavors.

Until recently, the sprouts that had macerated in honey were incorporated into a kombucha made in collaboration with Sencha Kombucha. With the bankruptcy of the company, fir kombucha finds itself an orphan, to the chagrin of amateurs who regularly contact Jérémie Postel to find out where to find it. So far, nowhere. The entrepreneur hopes that his kombucha will survive and dreams of finding an investor who will allow it. Just as he dreams of seeing the balsam fir, this species endemic to North America, occupy a place as important as maple in the hearts of Quebecers.