Citrus aromas and pine needle chewing gum

Forest ecologist Artur Cisar-Erlach and Alpengummi co-founder Sandra Falkner can tell you exactly what it tastes like while hiking through the Vienna Woods.

On the pitch trail near Hernstein, Sandra Falkner knows how resin is "pitched" even without the display boards. Her natural chewing gums are based on the resin of the black pine that grows there. Like her, Artur Cisar-Erlach knows the taste of these forests well, because he is behind the concept of the WienerWaldGenuss (Taste of the Vienna Woods) tour - guided walks in the forest that show how aromatic trees can taste - and where you can also taste the Alpengummi.

When you walk through the forest - do you immediately think of the taste of the trees?

Sandra Falkner: You look at the forest through different eyes the more you know about it. Through the Alpengummi, I know the tree resins and their taste. I have also made cosmetics from the resources of the forest and meadow. And in spring, I make salad from tree leaves.

Artur Cisar-Erlach: The Vienna Woods impress me just because of the beautiful landscape and strong aromas. But I always find it fascinating to take a closer look at how great the diversity is here - and the variety of flavours. In terms of taste, my favourite tree is the black pine, which we see as an indigenous species in the Vienna region. You can use everything from it - I make pesto and tea from the needles, the resin is used to make Alpengummi or for smoking, and I like to use the bark for baking. The cambium is also edible, the layer between the wood and the bark. With its high vitamin C content, it is virtually a superfood. And there are so many other trees. Sausage and cheese products are smoked with the wood of the beech; even the Neapolitan wood-fired pizza is baked with it. Larch and maple are great for iced tea and salad. Most people are familiar with the vanilla and chocolate notes of oak from their experience with wine and spirits such as whisky. Conifers go in the citrus direction.

Why is resin from the pine tree in the Vienna Woods used for Alpengummi?

Sandra Falkner: We found out that the old craft of pitching to extract resin from pine trees still exists in Lower Austria. Its heyday was in the 1950s, then it fell into oblivion. Today, most chewing gums are made from petroleum-based plastic. We came up with the idea of replacing that with a natural product that can be produced regionally based on the resin extraction. We are the only ones in Europe - or even the world - who use pine resin for chewing gum.

Artur Cisar-Erlach: I was looking at the resin extraction process with Sandra. Now I see these distinctive pitch trees everywhere. Many of the black pine forests in the Vienna Woods were planted specifically for resin extraction because it was such an important raw material before oil. I can imagine that it will become important again in the future.

How do we recognise the resin tree, and how does its resin get into the chewing gum box?

Sandra Falkner: You can see cuts in the bark, especially at Hernstein or Piesting. Every now and then you can see live cups hanging from the tree in these places. In spring, the first layer of bark is removed, then the resin drips and is collected that way. Then it is cleaned up and sent to our production facility in Vienna, where we mix it with the other ingredients - beeswax and birch sugar for tooth cleaning and sweetness, glycerine to keep it moist, lecithin as an emulsifier, gum arabic for consistency and natural flavours. Then we portion and package the chewing gum.

Can you taste the Vienna Woods?

Sandra Falkner: The resin has its own flavour. You can definitely tell that it is a product from the forest. With forest products you take in much more fibre, trace elements and vitamins. And a few bitter substances. The demand for those is increasing again.

Artur Cisar-Erlach: Such bitter substances are quite healthy. They are also the defence substances of the plants themselves; part of their immune system.

How do we learn more about the types of trees and what they mean for the forest, but also for culinary purposes, when we go hiking here? 

Sandra Falkner: On the Pecherlehrpfad, look out for well-signposted stations and on trees, where you can see how the craft was and is practised. When resin extraction was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2011, the "KEAföhrenen" (KEA pine) was also formed. This is an association in which, thanks to the Alpengummi, we are members, along with other businesses involved with Swiss stone pine - from restaurants to the Pechermuseum in Hernstein. It's all about preserving knowledge about the tree. The name comes from Kien, pine. Dealing with and finding this and other tree species is an exciting challenge - especially in the species-rich Vienna Woods, where deciduous and coniferous trees are mixed.

Artur Cisar-Erlach: In principle, the same applies as with mushrooms - only eat from the tree when you are sure that you have identified it correctly. I therefore recommend going into the forest with people from whom you learn something. This is possible on the WienerWaldGenuss (Taste of the Vienna Woods) tour, which I conceived as a worldwide unique taste experience directly in the forest. The idea was born when I discovered that many everyday foods come from trees or are influenced by them. With the exclusive tours through the Vienna Woods, I have now found a completely new approach to communicating this unknown side of the forest. With this concept, interested people can immerse themselves in the wonderful ecosystem of the Vienna Woods together with nature educators and explore the diversity of flavours of its trees. They can do this with the help of selected food products from the region. Wines and Aceto Balsamico, for example, which are matured in Vienna Woods oak barrels, and Alpengummi is of course also included. We prepare small dishes directly in the forest. And besides knowledge about tree species and food production, we also like to pass on recipe ideas.

Is this knowledge important for the future?

Artur Cisar-Erlach: Absolutely, in more ways than one! The black pine is interesting in times of climate change because it is well adapted to hot, dry and nutrient-poor locations. Resin ointment is being used again in medicine, for example. On a culinary level, I think it's important to know that you can use not only wood, but everything. As with the nose-to-tail in animals, there is an incredible number of flavours and dishes to discover from the top to the root. By the way, tasting trees can provide a wide range of information - about biodiversity, for example. This is also where we come in with the WienerWaldGenuss (Taste of the Vienna Woods) tour. When the nature educators give people a taste of trees during these hikes, they can establish a completely different relationship with the forest. And what's more, it tastes wonderful!