Posted August 2006
On Huckleberries and Hounds
By Jude Lutge
(MENDOCINO, CA) –As though it were only yesterday, I remember
picking berries for the first time – blueberries in Minnesota.
I was three years old. I can close my eyes and see the bushes
hanging with small fruit ornaments, feel and smell the hot, buzzy
air, hear the laughter of my family nearby, gathering tins on
strings around our necks. Along with the laughter, there emanates
a rare sense of peaceful leisure from my two too hardworking
and earnest parents. Instructions given . . . look at the color
to gauge ripeness; don't pick the leaves or green ones and don't
put more in your mouth than in the pail. There was a promise
of pie with hand cranked vanilla ice cream, if we picked enough.
My Dad kissing my Mom on her sun warmed neck when he thought
my brother and I weren't looking.
It would seem like a simple day and quite unremarkable to an observer,
not a time that would sear such a profoundly poignant mark forever
in my memory. I could have stayed in those fragrant woods and frozen
us all in that sweet and happy scene. How did I feel that at such
a tender age? As children uncannily will, I must have sensed the
mood was special, different from the every day and worth remembering.
It's berry season in Mendocino and huckleberries are my favorite, most
closely resembling the taste of my childhood blueberries. Last year,
when the windy June rains blew the flowers off the huckleberries and
ruined the crop, I grieved the loss on every walk I took through the
pygmy forest. I made one incredibly labor intensive huckleberry tart
all summer. I figured if I sold it to Mendocino Market where
I used to sell my tarts; it would cost at least $100. It was
hard to share last year. This year promises great picking. My
I have trained my Australian Shepherd to pick her own huckleberries.
She learned at an early puppy age what a huckleberry was and
the following year started to sniff them out even before the
flowers bloomed. There must have been a subtle scent only a dog
could pick up. She watched/smelled their progress carefully after
that. She can scrape the ripe berries off with her teeth, like
artichoke meat from a leaf, another talent of hers. A perfect
foodie's dog. However, she doesn't contribute any berries to
the communal basket and I sometimes have to fight her for an
especially luscious cluster.
I feel the same passion for picking wild mushrooms. As Katie
Letcher Lyle explains in her exquisite The Wild Berry Book, “
. . . the deepest reasons for berry-gathering may lie beyond
the taste and healthfulness of free, fresh berries. In foraging
for any wild food, we may be answering deep signals from the
brain, spirit, or body. We may yearn to hunt for sustenance,
to trade energy and sweat for nourishment as our ancestors did
and to satisfy one of our most primitive instincts – that of
providing food for ourselves and our families."
Huckleberries grow in open fields and any area that has been
recently burnt over, along country roads and on sandy paths at
the edge of sparse woods. Blueberries belong to the genus that
the 18th century classifier Linnaeus called Vacinnium, after
the cows that probably grazed near and sometimes on top of-the
fruits. The huckleberry technically belongs to the closely related
species Gaylussacia, but may also be one of several Vaccinia. The
word huckleberry is a corruption of whortleberry, in turn a name
for the blueberry. The berries go by a confusing array of names
– farkleberry, sparkleberry, dangleberry, sunberry and wonderberries.
The English bilberry, Vaccinium myrtillis, is also known as buckberry,
American huckleberry and whortleberry. V. myrtillia also goes
by bear huckleberry, squawberry, hurtleberry, squaw huckleberry
and deer berry.
The wide variety of reputed medical virtues stems from the actions
of a pigment called anthocyanin on capillary microcirculation,
therefore improving night vision, pregnancy edema, hemorrhoids,
varicose veins and inflammation, although these claims are primarily
attributed to the English bilberry, available in teas.
Red thimbleberries, rarer black raspberries, elderberries, salmonberries,
shoestring and Himalaya blackberries, blue and black huckleberries
all grow locally, but Henry David Thoreau praised the huckleberry
as among the finest fruits of the wild and cautioned interested
eaters: "if you would know the flavor of huckleberries,
ask the cowboy or the partridge. It is a vulgar error to suppose that
you have tasted huckleberries who have never plucked them....the ambrosial
and essential part of the fruit is lost with the bloom which
is rubbed off in the market cart, and they become mere provender."
In other words pick them yourself. Remove the leaves, stems
and immature or defective berries and spend a morning making
a huckleberry tart. I copy a Minnesota trick of my French aunt
and top the baked tart with fresh huckleberries which I glaze
with melted wild huckleberry jam, although red currant jelly
will do – definitely gilding the lily. If a fruit was ever worth
the trouble, it's the huckleberry. And if it cures what ails
you, all the better.
(Jude Lutge owns Foodprose Public Relations and Marketing, Mendocino)
Recipe for Huckleberry Granita