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Edible Plants

Wild Huckleberries: Natures tart-sweet treasure

Todays guest post is from my all time favorite favorite foraging book, The Flavors of Home. This amazing book, written by Margit-Roos Collins, is my go to on foraging for wild edibles in The Bay, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about what nature has to offer in our area (I like it so much I even wrote the forward for the new edition!). Check out her post below and make sure to click the link at the bottom to get a copy of your own with a special discount.

Happy foraging!
Iso Rabins
Founder: forageSF

Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)

Just thinking of huckleberries is relaxing. They are a dependable, democratic berry. Their flavor pleases most people, and enough berries grow here to supply every piemaker who's willing to harvest them.

Huckleberry shrubs grow 3 to 7 feet tall and have small, stiff, shiny leaves that stay dark green the year round. The blossoms are pale pink or white and bell shaped, and the berries turn blue-black when ripe. Basically, they look like blueberries, only smaller, shinier, and darker. Sometimes they are covered with a white bloom that makes them look light blue.

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What tranquil afternoons I have spent at Point Reyes, absorbed in the pleasant tedium of trying to fill a bag with those tiny, dark berries. Except when we compare sacks to see who's ahead, my husband and I are each on our own in the shrubbery, listening to bird calls and letting our thoughts run free. I love to look up and see the ocean sparkling in the distance; thoughts of its long horizons and expansive beaches balance the forest's myriad close-up details. The sunlight makes the grasses shine in the hidden meadow where we eat our lunch. Every breeze finds a voice as it passes through the fir branches high overhead.

Sooner or later, one of us gets bored and is ready to move on. With luck it hits us at the same time, so that neither has to feel like the martyred nature lover. An hour or two of picking is all we need to recapture what we came for. Which is what? Basically, it is time spent outdoors without an agenda -- who cares how many berries we pick? Without deep conversation, or small talk, or any real interaction with another human bundle of desires and demands. Without a certain mileage to be covered, or a need to match paces, or a plant or animal to be found and observed. And because picking the berries is an accomplishment, no matter how small, it frees me from the feeling that I need to make the time count by thinking about something important or making plans. When I pick huckleberries, 1 just exist, like a kid floating through summer vacation.

Maybe you find berry picking fun, or even tedious, but not a transcendent experience. No matter. At least you come home with a bag of berries -- extremely valuable berries, considering the time you have invested in harvesting them -- and now you want to make something delicious with them.

First, you need to pull off any green stems that are still attached. Then put the berries in a pot of water. Swish them around and bits of stem or leaf will float to the top along with the tiny, green berries. Strain those off and then pick out any red, unripe berries. Cleaning and sorting them can be a tiresome chore; do it in good company, if possible.

Any blueberry recipe can be used for huckleberries, except that you will need to add more sugar to get the same effect because huckleberries are more tart. You may find the taste of pure huckleberry desserts slightly thin: sweet and sour but without any depth. My appreciation for the berries increased dramatically when I began cooking them with other fruits. The recipes for fruit pie and dessert sauce are two that we have enjoyed.

I used to work for a lawyer named Barbara Phillips. One night, she invited my husband and me over for dinner, and we brought huckleberries as our contribution to the meal. For dessert, I began making a simple, straightforward sauce with them, to go over her homemade yogurt. Barbara tasted it, her mind started ticking, and soon she had transformed it into something far more subtle and exciting. I have regarded huckleberries -- and fruit sauces -- with a new appreciation after that night.

Huckleberry Dessert Sauce Extraordinaire

• 1 cup huckleberries

• 1 lemon

• sugar or honey

• Cointreau

• cornstarch

Put aside 1/3 of the huckleberries. Put the other 2/3 in a saucepan, crush them with the bottom of a jar or other blunt object, and add barely enough water to cover them. Cook, stirring, over low heat, adding sugar or honey to taste. Add cornstarch, dissolved in a little water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the sauce reaches the thickness you desire. After each tablespoon, stir for a few minutes to see what effect it has on the thickness, before adding more.

When the texture is right, add the uncrushed berries. Remove the peel and white rind from a lemon and cut the pulp into small pieces, adding them to the sauce. You'd think that extra tartness would be the last thing huckleberries needed, but the lemon is a tremendous addition.

Finally, stir in some spoonfuls of Cointreau to taste. This orange-flavored liqueur adds warmth, depth, and interest to the sauce, transforming it remarkably. The wild and civilized flavors bring out the best in each other. Bon appetite!

Triple Fruit Pie

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• pie crust

• 1½ lemons

• 1 pippin or other tart apple

• a cup or so of huckleberries

• 1½ cups of Concord grapes

• 1/3 to ½ cup sugar

• cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Line a pie pan with any type of crust. Cut the apple into thin slices and cover the bottom of the pie crust with them. Slip the skins off the grapes and reserve the skins. Cook the grape pulp for a minute or two to soften it, and put it through a sieve to remove the seeds. Dissolve 3 tablespoons cornstarch in the juice of ½ lemon plus a little water, if necessary. Mix together the huckleberries, the grape pulp and skins, the cornstarch and lemon, and the sugar -- I like tart foods and use only 1/3 cup; using 1/3 cup produces a normal, sweet pie. Pour the mixture over the apple slices.

Bake the pie at 450° F. for 10 minutes, and then bake it at 350° for another 40 to 45 minutes. The grapes contribute sweetness and rich flavor, the apple adds body and texture, and the little huckleberries give a contrasting texture and their own tartness. Other wonderful combinations are huckleberries with peaches or mangos.

Where and When to Find Them

Marin and the Peninsula are the places to go for huckleberries; they are a coastal species. The best-bearing plants are usually on ridges or hillsides. For example, at one park I noticed disappointingly few berries on the shrubs down along a stream, but only a quarter of a mile up the trail, on the ridge, the berries were numerous.

Because they are so abundant, huckleberries are unusually dependable. No matter what the weather, you can count on finding some. But the quantity and quality of berries varies a lot from year to year. After the extraordinarily wet winter of 1981-1982, for example, they were more grainy and sour than usual, and the small crop was mostly gone by August. In other years, equally unusual, you'll find enough berries in late November to make pies for Thanksgiving. In a typical year, the shrubs bloom from February through June. The first ripe berries appear in mid-July, but the great huckleberry months are August, September, and October. The heavy coastal fogs of June and July have broken up by then, and you can usually count on sunny weather for your huckleberrying expedition. If you live in the fog zone, there's nothing like a September afternoon spent berry picking to make summer seem real again, and not just a sweet memory from other places and other times.

 

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