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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 dog knows.

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

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