Five Nordic Spices to Discover | BESIDE

Five Nordic Spices to Discover

Ariane Paré-Le Gal, owner of Gourmet Sauvage, offers a new way to fully taste Canadian territory.

Text—Ariane Paré-Le Gal
Illustrations—Mélanie Masclé

It’s a road with no set path. It meanders through forests, is lost in fields, and sometimes crosses a stream to emerge improved on the other side. The Nordic spice road is a mental construct, but it conveys stories, scents, and flavours. These link the different parts of our territory and are a bridge between erstwhile practices and today’s cuisine.

Camphorated, musky, or vanilla-flavoured: Nordic spices are many and surprising. Sometimes familiar, often foreign to our senses, these spices must be adopted for us to taste the full extent of our territory.


Sweet gale

This wild spice is as tasty as it is pretty! The sweet gale seeds — short, spiny, and vibrant green — grow in little alternating clusters on branches, as though they were tiny hedgehogs.

Where it’s found

Sweet gale likes having its roots near water and can thus be found along riverbanks, on lakeshores, and in bogs in many parts of Canada. This spice is harvested, through considerable effort, at the end of the summer, and it leaves fingers stained with the unique and bewitching essences it contains.


Exceptionally fresh, herbaceous, lightly ferrous, but also floral and camphorated. You can use it in cooking after coarsely crumbling the seeds or crushing them into a powder with a mortar and pestle — as long as you don’t cook them for too long, as this could add a highly unpleasant bitter taste to your meal.

How to prepare

Add sweet gale as a garnish to your baking, marinades, or even sautéed vegetables. No matter what dish it is, the spice will elegantly flavour a wide array of culinary creations. Remember, though, to always use it sparingly, raw or at the end of cooking.

Sweet clover

Its scent is reminiscent of warm evenings in the countryside when the sun is setting,  having distilled the aroma of wild flowers all afternoon. You might not know where it comes from, but its smell is stored in your memory, along with images of driving through calm fields, windows down.

Where it’s found

You’ve probably come across sweet clover countless times: tiny white flowers springing up along roadsides, near fallow fields, or in vacant lots. The plant is elegant and ethereal, but overshadowed by its often more flamboyant neighbours.


Hardly larger than the tip of a pencil, sweet clover flowers contain a molecule akin to vanillin: coumarin, also found in tonka beans. Sweet clover has a strong vanilla taste, as well as notes of fresh hay and almonds. Who would have thought our territory would provide what we need to create a Nordic vanilla?

How to prepare

Sweet clover flowers can be used whole and dried, but they truly reveal themselves when they’re transformed into an extract. The extract is used in the same recipes and with the same quantities as vanilla and provides a rich, complex flavour spectrum that  enhances desserts.


This very tart spice is to Turkish and Lebanese traditions (among others) what maple syrup is to Canada: an essential ingredient for daily cooking.

Surprisingly, though the tree grows abundantly right here in Canada, the sumac we find on the market is almost exclusively from the Middle East. And, though harvesting sumac here is still uncommon, use of this spice seems to be gaining traction each year.  We had to discover another continent’s flavours to unearth an ingredient from our own terroir!

Local sumac is exceptionally high quality, hand picked, and processed by artisanal businesses. Moreover, it has been spared from the high-volume production strategies that alter the quality of transatlantic sumac, which importers sometimes cut with other spices.

Where it’s found

Staghorn sumac is fairly common in Canada. The bushes prefer dry and rocky soil and grow abundantly along roadsides in the southern part of the country. Its scarlet fruit is easy to spot in late summer.


Although sumac doesn’t have a strong odour, it is extraordinarily tasty! Its strong acidity will make you pucker, but it must be harvested at the right time. Experienced pickers keep watch over the trees as of late July and taste the fruit regularly to ensure maximum flavour. The berries have to be very red and protected from the rain, which can wash away the sour molecules.

How to prepare

Sumac is mainly used to finish a dish, but it can also be added to salads, fish, grilled vegetables, and various sauces. Sumac is a great local alternative to lemon. It’s a versatile spice that’s easy to incorporate into daily cooking.

Green alder pepper

Better known by the name “dune pepper,” the green alder pepper has nothing peppery about it — except perhaps its appearance (similar to a long pepper) — and it doesn’t grow among dunes. Though a poor descriptor, its poetic name is more commonly used.

Where it’s found

The dune pepper is a bush, about four metres tall, that grows abundantly in the northern parts of the country. The male flowers, called “catkins,” are ideally harvested in the fall, but also throughout the winter, before they bloom in spring.


Dune pepper is a spice whose resinous and musky notes are unmatched. The powerful flavour must be expertly balanced. Grind the catkins into a powder with a mortar and pestle rather than a grinder, as they contain a lot of resin, and only just before using, so that their complex flavours last.

How to prepare

A complement to both sweet and savoury dishes, dune pepper wonderfully flavours jams, chocolate desserts, and meringues, and enhances meat dishes when used in marinades or while cooking.

Balsam fir

Close your eyes and imagine a fir tree: can you smell it? This emblematic tree, which we welcome into our homes every year, has a comforting smell that we can’t help but associate with the holidays and winter. The more we use it, the more we discover that balsam fir has multiple flavours, which reveal themselves differently depending on the time of year it’s harvested and how it’s processed.

Where it’s found

Balsam fir is abundant throughout Canada. It loves cool, moist, and well-drained soil. With its need for a lot of light, it grows mainly at the edges of the forest and in clearings.


While the finely chopped needles bring exquisite notes to meats and desserts, its spring shoots contain truly extraordinary flavours. Dried and then ground, they make a green powder with a scent that oscillates between pineapple, cherry, and candy cane.

How to prepare

A teaspoon of fir-shoot powder in a white cake, a meringue, a flan, or homemade ice cream never fails to please the palate, both for its flavour and for the light green colour it adds to the recipe.


Though the wild spices listed above are exceptional, other spices such as tansy, stinkweed, wild mustard, Labrador tea, wild bergamot, sheep’s sorrel, Scottish licorice-root, sweet fern, wild caraway, American searocket, hogweed, and angelica — to name only a few — are also worth exploring!

Most Nordic spices can be bought from Épices de cru. Sweet clover extract is available through Gourmet Sauvage.



Fir and Sweet Clover Cake

 (The original recipe, made with spruce, is from the book Forêt.)

This is a classic in our house — a simple cake that honours our nordicity. Slip a slice into a lunch box, savour it with a cup of herbal tea, or cover it with maple meringue for a more decadent version.

Serves 8

  • 125 ml [1/2 cup] yogurt
  • 75 ml [5 tsp] fir-shoot powder
  • 5 ml [1 tsp] sweet clover extract
  • zest of 1 organic lemon
  • 125 ml [1/2 cup] butter
  • 250 ml [1 cup] sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 250 ml [1 cup] white flour
  • 5 ml [1 tsp] baking powder
  • 15 ml [1 Tbsp] lemon juice


Preheat the oven to 180 ÂşC [350 ÂşF]. Combine the yogurt, fir-shoot powder, sweet clover extract, and lemon zest. Set aside. In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar and beat for two minutes. Add the eggs one by one, mixing steadily. Fold in the flour and baking powder with a spatula. Add the yogurt mixture and lemon juice, and mix. Grease a pan and sprinkle sugar over the bottom and sides. Pour in the mixture and bake for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

After completing her studies in journalism, Ariane Paré-Le Gal spent a dozen years as a columnist and later as a radio host before taking over the family business, Gourmet Sauvage. With her father, Gérald Le Gal, she wrote the bestseller Forêt, published by Éditions Cardinal.

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