The Fruit Forager’s Companion(Chelsea Green, 2018), by Sara Bir is a guide devoted to the secret, sweet bounty outside our front doors and ripe for the taking from familiar apples and oranges to the lesser-known pawspaws and mayhaws. Bir a seasoned chef, gardener, and forager, primes readers on foraging basics, demonstrates gathering and preservation techniques while transforming unloved and forgotten fruit into an array of delightful dishes.
Vaccinium spp.Ericaceae familyThroughout Canada; northern and western US
Huckleberries are wild through and through, and a certain type of person with a fierce independent streak and a love of self-sufficiency sees huckleberries as an emblem of a western way of life. Northwestern Montana is known for its huckleberries, as are Washington and Oregon. It’s the state fruit of Idaho. Species grow all the way up the Pacific Coast to Alaska.
Everyone has heard of huckleberries, but relatively few actually get to taste them. They are true foragers’ delights, and it is unwise to describe them assimilar to blueberries around a huckleberry hound, because you will get an earful. Huckleberries have a more prominent “belly button” on their blossom ends than blueberries do. While blueberries can grow in clusters of several berries, huckleberries stud branches one by one, asking your fingers to be more nimble. And most important, huckleberries taste like huckleberries: intense, juicy, addictive.
The huckleberry hunt can get competitive, but there is a precedent for working things out. Huckleberries were at the heart of a treaty between the Yakima Nation and the US National Forest Service. The contested huckleberries were in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, about 100 miles (160 km) south of Seattle. The Yakima have foraged for huckleberries on the land for generations — to them, the annual picking and preserving of berries is a culturally, socially, and spiritually significant event — but during the Great Depression, outsiders began showing up and stripping the berries, too. In 1932 forest supervisor J. R. Burkhardt met with council members and eventually set aside 2,800 acres (1,135 ha) for tribal use during huckleberry season. The agreement was bound with a handshake and eventually written into the forest’s management plan. It is still in effect today, though reputedly some non–Native Americans choose not to heed the signs posted and harvest huckleberries freely.
Speaking of national forests, huckleberries and hiking go hand in hand. While out on unrelated mountain or meadow adventures, you can scout out promising spots to return to. Serious pickers think nothing of going to higher elevations to get the best ones. The deeper the season, the higher you go.
Huckleberries are not big, and to pick many is a legitimate outing. Because huckleberries thrive on slopes, harvesters must be intrepid. There is brush to get through and footing to maintain. A fall could mean spilling your container, a small tragedy. Transfer your open container to a lidded container or zip-top bag every now and then, so if you do slip, your loss will be minimized.
The bushes can be low, or grow up to 6 or 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 m) tall. Some people spot huckleberries on the side of a road, a sign that there are probably more huckleberries up higher. Pull over and check it out! If it’s been cleared of berries already, there may be other bushes farther off the road to investigate.
Forest fires are part of what make huckleberries grow, though it’s a slow cycle. Since huckleberries like full sun, they eventually establish themselves in open areas left after a burn. There’s a push-pull of vegetation as the forest begins to encroach on its old territory, and Native Americans would some times burn trees and brush to preserve huckleberry fields.
Most species of huckleberries are dark purple-blue-black when ripe, but red huckleberries (V. parvifolium) are red when ripe, and rumored to be more tart than black ones. After one taste, you’ll know!
Harvesting and Storage
Ripe berries are plump, sweet, and dark purple. They are soft, so pick them one at a time.
Pick out any debris once you get home, but don’t rinse the berries until you use them. Some huckleberry fans don’t rinse them at all, because it will wash off precious juice.
Zip-top bags don’t provide much cushioning, but they do contain any leaking juices. If you want intact berries, bring a rigid container.
Freeze huckleberries within a day of harvesting them. They get softer as they sit, and if frozen they form a block and thaw into mush after releasing more liquid — still usable for some recipes, but not always the desired effect. Par-freeze the berries on a rimmed baking sheet before bagging them so you can pull out individual frozen berries and drop them directly onto rounds of griddling pancake batter.
Huckleberries release their juice easily, so use them in ways that take advantage of this. Gooey jams and gushy baked desserts are obvious here. Anyone who’s browsed in a Rocky Mountain or Pacific Northwest gift shop has doubtlessly seen plastic bears filled with huckleberry-infused honey. Quick-cooked ketchups and sauces for game bring it to the savory side.
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This excerpt is adapted from Sara Bir’s book The Fruit Forager’s Companion: Ferments, Desserts, Main Dishes, and More from Your Neighborhood and Beyond (Chelsea Green, 2018) and is adapted with permission from the publisher.