Mugolio, a dark, aromatic syrup imbued with the flavor of pine cones, is the poster child for the kind of crazy cool, Illuminati-esque foodstuff foragers have access to, all for the price of a hike, or even less, depending on how close you are to some pine trees. The syrup came on my radar when my friend Dan Farmer gave me a little jar of some he made to try. I remember it being good, but I forgot about it until I opened the Salt Cellar, and started making my own from spruce tips, which is excellent, but not quite the same as pine cone syrup (for the record both are great).
Mugolio is now still a bit of a chef secret, and available through elite specialty distributors, but the price is staggeringly high, exorbitant even, when you consider you can make nearly the exact same thing at home, for less than it costs to make a cake.
A chef secret that takes months to make
The cost of mugolio is not found in ingredients, but is paid in time. How much time is certainly up for debate, and you’ll notice my recipe turns around a lot quicker than burying a jar of pine cones and sugar in the yard and digging it up the next year (an actual recipe from Romania). But you’ll still want at least a month for a good syrup, and aging it longer is fun.
Mugolio: more than just pine cones
Real quick, some reality. I use the word mugolio interchangeably for syrups made from numerous tree parts, if you look around you’ll see mugolio usually refers to a syrup made from the young cones of mugo pine, harvested at a specific time of year, under the strictest of conditions, blah, blah, blah.
I’ve made all kinds of similar sugar based products from all kinds of conifer parts, and it isn’t some difficult, arcane thing you can only do in the light of a full moon— just the opposite. Making mugolio is easy, and there’s a very forgiving time window for harvesting cones, or other things products like cedar cones, wintergreen, juniper, or spruce tips. All of the aforementioned making excellent syrups in their own right.
There’s something special about the pine cone syrup though. Pine cones hold more water than any other thing I’ve used, and they also ferment during the maceration process, vigorously. The day after you combine the pine cones and sugar, there will look as if there was a rush and release of water—what was once a solid packed jar of pine cones and sugar is not 75 % full and liquid.
Other tree products like spruce tips and cedar cones Ive worked with are more dry, and won’t ferment unless you add a water sugar solution, and then it tends to add a touch more lactic acid flavor than I taste with the syrup made from pine cones.
The point is: you can make syrups like this out of all kinds of things, and everyone I’ve had has been good. If you have spruce trees near you, take a look at the basic spruce tip mugolio too, which is nearly the same, sans the fermentation.
The best part is figuring out how to use it. Somethings take some experimentation, mugolio not so much. You can literally put it on just about anything where maple syrup would be good, and you’ll be glad you did. The syrup has the essence of pine, but with none of the strong tannins you’d expect If you took a bite out of a pine cone—just pure piney goodness.
When to harvest your pine cones
This is up for debate. Purists might say that you need to harvest pine cones when they’re the size of a pinky nail, or some other arbitrary size. I can tell you after making this for years now, that any of the pine cones pictured in the image above will make a fine syrup, but the larger cones seem to hold a bit more water in them. As long as the cones are meristematic and tender, not even necessarily green, and can be cut through with a knife, even if it’s into pieces with long cones like white spruce or balsam fir, they will make a good mugolio. The only cones that won’t work, are mature, tough, barky cones, like those you’d see on the ground.
Is it safe?
Yes, this is absolutely, positively safe, and there’s no need to worry about botulism. I can’t speak to the exact science of spruce tip and cedar cones syrups, (also safe) but pine cone syrup is especially safe as it ferments as it macerates, due to the higher water content of the cones. The extended fermentation lowers the pH, making it shelf stable.
Choosing the right sugar
This is important, but a preference on my part. Some recipes might call for white sugar, and while it will work and give you a flavored syrup, white sugar is more dry, and I find the clear color slightly less attractive than the caramel color that organic, unrefined turbinado-style sugar or even light brown sugar or a similar substitute will give. Also, I try to avoid using plain white sugar when I can, and I highly doubt that original mugolio recipes used such highly refined products when the first adventurous people crafted them. Use a good sugar that you can feel good about eating, and drizzling over everything, because you’ll want to drizzle it, on, well, everything.
Here’s a few ideas for using it, and a few things yet on my list to try.
Ideas for using
- Drizzled on pancakes, crepes waffles and other things primed for syrup.
- Use it to flavor whipped cream
- Excellent drizzled over soft cheese like mascarpone, labneh, chevre, etc.
- Drizzled over fresh fruit
- Using in place of honey, I love drizzling it over bowls of warm buttered wild rice with nuts, fruit, and yogurt for breakfast.
- It’s good in desserts, added in small amounts like you would use honey. Dairy based desserts like ice cream, panna cotta and custards of all kinds can just be seasoned to taste with it.
- Try adding small drizzles to salads, or whisking into vinaigrettes.
- Mixing it with a splash of vinegar just to loosen it a bit makes a good brush on or glaze for hams, etc.
This stuff is unique enough that it needs a special mention. Zirbenschnaps is a liquor made with pine cones. I’m not an expert on distillation by any means, but I’ve been working with a distillery to make similar products, and one thing we’ve been toying around with is making a rendition of it by simply using it as the sweetener in a macerated liquor. The traditional zirbenshnaps has a red tone to its color, which makes me think they’re using a syrup made from fresh pine cones cooked immediately—not aged, but I know there’s also birch schnaps, and that’s made with reduced birch syrup, so I think using mugolio would be fine. Currently I know zirbenshnaps is only sold at ultra high-end restaurants in my area.
Whatever you make with it, it’s one of the most fascinating and delicious condiments made from wild ingredients I know of.
Mugolio, or Pine Cone Syrup
- 2 cups young red pine or other pine cones (soft enough to be cut with a knife) *
- 2 cups organic brown sugar or other brown sugar, just not white which is dry and makes a clear syrup
- Combine the sugar and pine cones and pack into a quart jar, then allow to macerate (age) in a cool dark place for at least 2 months.
- During the first few weeks of maceration, open the jar occasionally to release carbon dioxide as the mixture will ferment vigorously.
- Keep an eye on the jar, if you see any mold forming, spoon it off and discard. After the maceration is complete, scrape the sugar slush and pine cones into a pot, bring to a boil, then strain and bottle.
- The syrup is stable at room temperature since the fermentation lowers the pH, but will keep the best flavor in the fridge. It can also be water bath processed.