There used to be a renowned restaurant here in Seattle (now closed) that served a famous Douglas Fir Martini. Yes, you heard that right. A pine tree snowball dropped right into your vodka 'tini. Though 'pine tree' isn't exactly a flavoring that sounds appetizing to me at first glance, I nonetheless was intrigued. Pity that I didn't have a chance to try it, as the place closed not long after I moved here. But isn't it telling, the fact that you could actually find an evergreen cocktail here in Seattle. Here in the Emerald City, I think we're a little obsessed with our evergreen surroundings. I really can't blame the Seattle foodies for breaking out the tree-flavored cocktails (and not just because we're known to be the tree-hugging type).
We actually use evergreens all the time to season and add flavor to foods and spirits. You taste that juniper in your gin? Yup, it's the berry from an evergreen in the cypress family. And the most common herb with a pine-like flavor and aroma? Rosemary. The evergreen rosemary bush has long been used in cuisine but also for religious and spiritual purposes in Roman times. Although it's an evergreen, it actually belongs in the mint family. That piney smell comes from an aromatic compound called pinene found in the needle-like leaves.
There are many other herbs whose flavor is enhanced by pinene. Sage, thyme, marjoram, nutmeg, fennel and many others possess this pungent chemical that awakens our tastebuds. Rosemary, however, is one of my favorites. When I first moved to Seattle from the Midwest, my neighbors' choices for hedging were shocking: rosemary bushes. You mean that people just grow this stuff outside as decorative landscaping? My thoughts turned to my desperate attempts at keeping a tiny, woody, scrappy-looking rosemary plant alive in a small terra-cotta pot in the dead of a Chicago winter. But here, in the land of plenty, even the decorative shrubs spelled dinner. Soon, every pasta sauce, omelet, and chickpea stew had at least a few branches of rosemary thrown in. Mark was even more addicted to the stuff, taking my cue and pilfering the neighbors' yards when shades were drawn so we could have a few leaves to add to the roast chicken and Sunday night's pizza. I can't even imagine buying the stuff now... would be kind of like buying dandelions.
Rosemary can be used in so many interesting concoctions. I've had a rosemary lemonade at Cafe Flora, rosemary cookies, the thicker branches may be threaded through meats for outdoor grilling, and Martha Stewart even suggests getting a little pleasantly tipsy with a rosemary pear vodka cocktail.