Best Restaurants Are Serving Tree Bark

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- There have been recent reports of impoverished North Korean farmers reduced to eating boiled tree bark for sustenance. Characters in the best-selling novel (soon to be film) The Hunger Games resort to a similar survival tactic.

In Finland, bark bread made from pine and birch trees was born in a time of famine and remains popular to this day throughout Scandinavia (a tongue-in-cheek recipe can be found here).

Could bark now also be heading to a trendy bar or restaurant near you?

Just as chefs are rediscovering a "snout-to-tail" approach to meats, a "whole tree" approach to dining is slowly branching its way into the culinary world.

The idea of feasting on wood may sound more unusual than it really is.

To start with, you probably already eat wood on a regular basis. Though hardly an industry secret, many consumers were surprised -- after an unsuccessful class-action suit over Taco Bell (Stock Quote: YUM) ingredients -- to learn that wood pulp is a mainstay of a lot of fast food and processed snacks.

Breads, pancake mixes, breakfast cereals crackers, pizza crust, mashed potato mixes and nearly every product made by McDonald's (Stock Quote: MCD) contains wood pulp by its more consumer-friendly name, cellulose.

Beyond that ground-up additive, there are more refined ways trees are finding their way to our palates.

On weekends from Feb. 17 through March 4, The Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, Wash., will hold its annual, midwinter dinner theme, "A Taste of Trees."

The restaurant is rated as one of the best in the region by numerous guides and publications and named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine. In 2000, proprietor Ron Zimmerman was lauded as one of the nation's best chefs by the James Beard Foundation.

"Most people don't really think of trees as a source of food," he says. "Of course, when you remind them that trees give fruits and nuts, they go, "Oh, yes, ah-ha!"

Zimmerman says his upcoming menus "not only showcase the obvious nuts and fruits, but also explore flavors from seeds, sap, leaves, needles and barks."

Among the dishes featured last year were: Douglas Crab, a preparation that included Dungeness crab with a Douglas Fir-and-toasted-pumpkin-seed gremolata; an applewood rotisserie-roasted squab with spruce tip syrup glaze; a walnut pain perdu with Wild Birch sap ice cream and rosemary-roasted pears.

"As a deep-scratch locavore restaurant, we explore the historic uses of parts of trees by the Coast Salish and Haida Nations Indians of this region," Zimmerman says. "Madrone Bark has a deep base note. It makes for an interesting tea as well as an ingredient in some occasional savory sauces and an additive for chocolate."

Dishes featured on the restaurant's menu have included Madrone-flavored risotto and a sorbet made with Douglas Fir needles.

"I have no way of knowing if barks are on an ascendency," Zimmerman says. "Trends and fads come and go, but trees have had barks for the last few hundred million years. Indigenous populations around the world have found myriad uses for tree barks, most of which are forgotten to modern culture. Cinnamon and quinine are barks we all know as flavorings. Cascara bark is a laxative. Cherry is an expectorant and analgesic. White Willow bark is a natural form of aspirin."

The beverage world has often relied on tree bark for unique flavors, from tonic water to gins. Root beer and birch beer, as their names suggest, have wood-flavored origins.

More exotic tree-based cocktail concoctions waiting for you to belly up to the bar these days are pine needle daiquiris and specialty drinks made with tree bark-infused gins and vodkas.

Bitters, typically flavored with concoctions that include tree bark, were a cocktail ingredient that drifted out of popularity around the time of prohibition.

They too have made resurgence, in part because they offer a unique alternative for a young, hipster community that thrills to resurrect trends. The growing appeal of local, organic ingredients in restaurants and small-batch, craft products in bars has proved similarly appealing. Also helping was this summer's lifting of a decades-old ban on infused liquors. The law, intended to curb the sale of moonshine in the 1920s, had also kept bars from serving more creatively flavored booze.

Jay Ducote, a Louisiana-based food writer and radio host who runs the Web site Bite and Booze, is skeptical that we'll see tree bark pop up on menus with any regularity.

"I think it would be rather odd if it really caught on," Ducote says. "The rough exterior bark really isn't pleasant or nutritious, and neither is the actual trunk of a tree. The only part with nutritional value and possibly some flavor worth cooking with is the inner bark, the area right underneath the outside layer of bark where the tree actually has living cells and is growing. I think the bitters resurgence is probably the closest you'll get to tree bark as a trendy ingredient. You have to take that inner bark and boil it down and then you'd be wise to add some other flavorings to make it palatable."

"As for drying it out and turning it into specialty flours, etc., I don't really see it catching on either," he adds. "Native Americans and others may have done that 200 years ago, but I don't see it catching on again in the food world. Tree bark is quite different than nuts like almonds that actually make a pretty decent flour. Perhaps there is some room for bark in the cocktail world, but that's about as far as I really see it catching on."

Ducote's skepticism isn't shared by Leith Steel of Andrew Freeman & Co., firm that specializes in hospitality and restaurant marketing and, each year, issues an influential report on restaurant trends.

"We haven't seen much use, or any use, of tree bark flour yet, but if that is used in Scandinavia, it would not be abnormal to see it used in a few of the most avant-garde restaurants here," Steel says.

"We are seeing the use of different treelike flavors -- pine, fir, etc. -- in more restaurants. In San Francisco, Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi began championing pine tips over the past couple of years and Chef Corey Lee uses acorn flour to make a special dish at Benu in San Francisco."

"We predicted Scandinavian ingredients would take off in 2011, and some of the forest-flavored infusions that we are predicting for this year are definitely an outgrowth from that trend," Steel says. "When Noma Chef Rene Redzepi's two-star Michelin restaurant in Denmark became the hottest restaurant in the world, chefs from all over took note."

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