Berry delicious

Picking teeny tiny berries is a great way to make sure little hands don’t get crampy from making matches and weaving and such.

To harvest Red Huckleberry, the local indigenous peoples used to craft combs of cedar, fashioned after the claws of a bear.  The combs were raked through the airy shrubs, and the small red berries would fall into the cedarbark baskets placed on the ground beneath the shrubs.  This sounds very efficient; but I do not have the time to painstakingly carve fake bear claws and besides, I am still nursing a self-inflicted wound suffered on my current woodworking project.  Therefore I must rely on the nimble little fingers of my child labor force, and take cruel advantage of her I-won’t-always-be-seven enthusiasm for Things Mommy and Daddy Say Are Fun.

Last summer, the three Red Huckleberry plants on my property bore about a cup and a half of useful berries (the berries are tiny).  This season, the berry crop is looking a little thin, so either it isn’t a good huckleberry year or my local Black Bear Family is augmenting its knock-my-garbage-cans-over-twice-a-week buffet with my berries.  So Sunday the family–my wife, daughter, and I–trooped a couple hundred yards down the street to the Preserve to purloin public huckleberries.   My family loves those brisk October weekends where we rake leaves, listen to football on the radio, and smell the delicious stew-y, roast-y, bake-y smells emanating from the kitchen.  So it didn’t feel at all out of place to go for a walk in the misty, 44-degree woods to forage up some food…except it is July.

Red Huckleberry is a graceful, ethereal shrub with small green leaves on branches held

‘You’re going to have to get a lot busier if you want to eat tonight!’

mostly horizontally above single woody stems.  When in full fruit it lights up the forest floor.  I have seen it very occasionally in nurseries and would LOVE to have more, except that in the wild the plant requires decaying red cedar in the soil to culture properly.  Since it takes a v-e-r-y  long time for cedar to decay, and I only have rotting cedar in three locations on my property, and that is where my three Red Huckleberry shrubs are already growing, no more Red Huckleberry for me.

About 45 minutes later, we had about a cup and a half of the miniscule fruits, plus a stem of some type of water lily my daughter asked me to get for her; for some reason, probably because I love her, I agreed to shimmy out into the lake on a fallen log using a low-hanging cedar branch for balance, and pick it for her, and because we were now as cold and sniffly as three people can be in late July at roughly sea level in North America, I was very happy to have not fallen in.

My father refuses to ‘waste his time’ fishing in the Puget Sound these days, because he doesn’t think there are any salmon around here anymore and because when you are eighty years old and spend all of your old-retired-guy time doing, um, I dunno what, floating around the San Juan Islands in a really cool boat during the summer would suck, I guess.  So he goes to Alaska a couple times a year and catches about as many fish as I hear people catch around here, but they vacuum seal and freeze it, and sometimes I get free delicious fish.

Red Huckleberry tastes similar to cranberry, tart and a bit citrus-y, but also with an appealing herbal–almost grassy–note on the finish, and Red Huckleberry looooves salmon. I wish I could give a proper recipe, but I’ve been grilling salmon since I was 14, and all I can tell you is it’s a ‘touch’ thing– and my wife made up the sauce on the fly:

Soak a food-grade cedar plank overnight.  You can get these at Costco.  Don’t bother with wine or herbs in the soaking water–it’s just gonna taste like cedar, and why waste wine? 

The literal fruit of our labor. Maybe I WILL have to make bear combs.

Over medium heat, macerate your Red Huckleberries with a little

When it cooks down, it really cooks down. That’s okay, though, since we are making a glaze and not a dippin’ sauce.

sweetener (my wife has used raw sugar, and agave syrup, but regular ol’ sugar is fine) and a little lemon or orange juice and zest.  When the ‘body’ of the berries is reduced by about half or so, remove from the heat and allow the berries to finish ‘saucing’ off the burner.  After they cool, refrigerate for about an hour to allow the pectins in the fruit to tighten up a bit.  This will make your sauce less likely to run off your fish and onto your plank.

Salt and pepper a salmon FILET (Don’t use salmon steaks. Everyone hates fish bones, filets minimize this for them in advance) to taste.  Make sure you have a big enough piece of fish so that everyone will get seconds and I will get thirds.

Drain your plank and put your fish on it skin side down.  If you skinned your filet you

For the best in food styling and photography, one should always eat half the dish before remembering to take a rushed and blurry photograph.

have too much free time. Place the plank on medium-indirect coals, if you’re man enough, or over medium-high flame if you are using your city grill.  About 2 minutes before your fish is done, spoon the Red Huckleberry sauce over the fish and finish.  This is going to glaze up your sauce.  When the salmon is done, and I like mine just beyond the ‘wet done’ I usually get at restaurants, dot the hot fish with butter and spoon on the rest of the sauce.  Serve with a fine Oregon Pinot Noir, because not enough people know that salmon goes nicely with a red wine, and get out of the way, ’cause I’m eating.  Don’t re-use your fishy and half-burned plank; just get another one at Costco already! but take the plank to the dumpster at work because salmon and Red Huckleberry together are pure bearoin.

We had friends over for dinner that night, and we made for them this very Northwest-y meal, because they are moving to San Diego.  Probably because it does not feel like late October there in July.  The water lily made a lovely centerpiece, floating in a glass bowl on the table.  Thanks to Corene for the sauce and sauce and fish photos, and to my daughter for, well, everything.

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9 Responses to Berry delicious

  1. Bravo! I thoroughly enjoyed this blogticle 🙂

  2. calvincaley says:

    THANK YOU! Fine food and beverage is not the same without you. I miss you so much.

  3. Parker says:

    Howdy,

    I’m gone back and read all of your past blogs, and so many times wanted to comment (moot, right?). Thank you for giving me yet another reason to, and in a timely fashion!
    I have loved picking red huckleberries since I was a kid, and was shocked as a young adult to find out that BLUE huckleberries exist. Sadly, my mother’s property no longer has huckleberry bushes for some reason, but now I know they like rotting cedar I’ll keep an eye out for bushes to buy or transplant and see if they’ll take on near some logs I found there.
    Your recipe sounds delicious, although I do like the “wet” stage of fish myself.

    I wish you the best of luck (cuz that sounds like what you’ll need in your city) in your battle to do right by your property. Will keep reading and cheering you on.

    Parker the farmer girl

    • calvincaley says:

      Please feel free to comment on anything, anytime. I don’t close comment threads-I don’t think I know how, anyway-and while things change rapidly and constantly in the forest, I am probably going to have the same hairstyle and the same taste in music forever, along with holding the same views. Even if my views do change, that is what makes for interesting conversation. Nothing will ever be moot.

      I really appreciate your visits and your support. Where is your farm? The blue huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum, so dark blue as to be almost black) is delicious and very adaptable–I have seen it growing wild from the ocean way on up into the high mountains, and inland into Idaho. I would estimate its hardiness at about Zone 9 to maybe 5. It is readily available and relatively inexpensive compared to other regional natives, and is a very attractive garden shrub. My grandmother used to make it into pie. Pie is delicious, and all fruit aspires to be pie.

      Much of the information I have on Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parviflorum) indicates that it only grows on ‘rotting wood,’ but my anecdotal observation is specifically rotting cedar, at least on my property and in the immediate surrounding area, including the spot where my family was picking them the other day. There is a forager who sells in our local farmer’s market, he and I were discussing this phenomena and he advances the same idea. While I have a LOT of rotting wood about, it isn’t on any maple, alder, Doug fir, or Western hemlock that is kicking around. I have seen a photo of it growing on a Maple stump, though. I think you should try it. I saw it at both Sky Nursery in Seattle and Molbaks in Woodinville–don’t know if either place ships, but it can’t hurt to ask.

      I hope my daughter remembers these tiny adventures fondly. We served this same dinner a year ago (darn huckleberries, fruiting only once and being so tiny!), to my Dad and his older sister who was visiting. Upon learning what the berries were, my dad (80) and my aunt (85) began to reminisce about the Depression and War years when Grandma and Grandpa would make the interstateless drive from Seattle to roughly where I live now. They’d drop off all the kids with pails and fishing rods to hunter-gather for the day, and then pick them up at dusk (I am pretty sure Grandpa hotfooted it to the nearest lousy tavern for the day, and it’s a wonder they didn’t all die in a fiery car wreck on the way home). It is interesting how food can trigger memory. My family and my cousin’s family all listened to these stories and the ones that followed, entranced. I want that for my daughter, too…being able to do things like that, in this day and age, is a remarkable good fortune, and interesting that it was ‘subsistence’ not so very long ago. Whoa. Didn’t mean to go on so. Thank you again!

  4. Chad B says:

    Here in California, it seems that most people aren’t even aware that Huckleberries exist. They are impossible to find. So when I got home (to Eastern Washington) for a visit, I like to stock up on frozen huckleberries and buy huckleberry taffy, huckleberry wine, huckleberry milkshakes, huckleberry jam . . . I should stop before I become the Bubba Gump of huckleberries. Suffice it to say that the huckleberry is one of the Earth’s best kept secrets.

    • calvincaley says:

      From where you live, seems like you’d have to go to the Siskyous, Tahoe, or Grant’s Pass to forage them. The red ones are so small (last year, enough for one salmon dinner from our three shrubs, this year the same amount from a grove of about twelve) they wouldn’t be worth the trouble if they weren’t so dang delicious. The dark blue berries from the Evergreen variety–Vaccinium ovatum–are superior in flavor and sweetness. That particular kind is relatively inexpensive and plentiful in the standard nursery trade. I have four dozen or so planted out, they are too small yet for much fruit production. As my Mountain Beavers mow through my clearing like locusts, anything completely lost will be replaced with Evergreen Huckleberry; which, other than tasty future-pie fruits, has significant landscape qualities I like. Namely, it is relatively inexpensive and plentiful in the standard nursery trade.

  5. I had to (re)-read this out loud to my girlfriend, because of how truly awesome the writing style is; Bearoin had me cracking up. It kind of reminds me of HSTs ability to keep my attention fully no matter what the subject matter was about. Do Huckleberries taste anything like lingonberry?

    • calvincaley says:

      Thank you very much for all of the foregoing. It is very likely unconscious, but if I had to cop to a Fear and Loathing in the Suburban Forest vibe, I’d do it. Very weird about bears this year, generally their feeding habits and travel patterns profile available ‘ground food;’ e.g. roots and tubers in the spring at low elevation, moving upslope to follow the ripening of various berries in their much-larger mountainous quantities, back downhill in the fall pursuing late-ripening berries and then off to bed. This year the food cycle seems to be ‘garbage day in whatever subdivision shall dictate my movements.’ My Dad brought me some Dungeness crab last week, we opted to eat it in the local park so we could put the shells in the garbage there. I prefer bears at the local swimmin’ hole than at home, and crabshells seemed like bear meth to me. Red huckleberry IS quite similar to lingonberry, which you can sometimes find in a delicious jam format at upscale markets, one of Sweden’s only contribution to delicious cuisine. I bet it would be very good on salmon. Gonna try that. Thanks for following!

  6. Pingback: This has been a story, and I have been the hero of it | A Thistle in My Sensitive Area

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