Wild mountain huckleberries are everything store-bought blueberries dreamed they could be.
The flavor of the two is similar, but concentrated in huckleberries and balanced with a slight acidity. It’s hard to imagine that the huckleberry, only a fraction of the size of a pea, could possess such intense flavor. But you know what they say about small packages. This particular small package delivers the apex of summer to me, for it ripens only after the mountains have seen their peak heat.
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I remember how angry I was when I realized that the scrubby little plant that had been at my ankles at every hike of my childhood was actually loaded with tasty huckleberries. I likely would have had a distinct advantage in picking them as a child too because the fruit dangles delicately below the plants’ foliage, often completely disguised from above.
In my small region of the Rocky Mountains, there are several species of the genus Vaccinium, with berries ranging in color from red to blue to black. Some would argue that it is most appropriate to refer to them as blueberries, and you might also hear them called billberries, grouseberries or whortleberries.
I learned them as huckleberries, and the fun-to-say name has stuck with me. It often happens that common names for plants vary from region to region. A plant known for generations to one household as pigweed may be a plant from an entirely different genus to someone in a different part of the world. This is why foragers need to refer to Latin binomials when specifying a plant.
Huckleberry plants are usually tall enough to get your boots wet, but rarely tall enough to get your calves wet. I find the pale green of their leaves to be distinctive, and instantly recognize the carpets of huckleberry plants rolled out on the moist soil beneath conifer or mixed conifer and aspen trees. Huckleberry plants are branched and shrubby, with alternating leaves that I’ve most often observed to be less than an inch long.
The fruit are slightly different in appearance from the blueberries most people recognize from the store. In addition to being smaller than a pencil eraser, they have what looks almost like a belly button at their growing end.
For me, the only complication comes in the fact that huckleberries ripen at the same time porcini burst forth on the mountain. To collect enough of the tiny fruit to use in a recipe takes a serious amount of time and effort, and I’m often torn as to whether to use my time to hunt mushrooms or huckleberries. Some years, I’ve merely enjoyed them as trail snacks. In the end, I’ve never regretted picking enough to use in a recipe.
It is a natural to preserve huckleberries as a jam, though I’ve never collected enough to make more than two tiny 4-ounce jars. A few years back, after noticing that my wild syrups sat in the pantry without being used, I discovered that I much prefer making shrubs, which are like syrups made with a healthy dose of vinegar. Most often flavored with fruit, shrubs are, to my mind, the grown-up answer to syrups. Shrub can be used in many of the same places as syrup, such as in fizzy water and cocktails, or to dress fruit salads, but the vinegar used to make shrub gives it a perfect punch of sour meets sweet.
If you prefer to enjoy your huckleberries right away, they are a great addition to all manner of baked goods. You might want to try them in a straight-up blueberry muffin recipe. I recommend using a recipe that calls for sour cream, which I’ve found reliably makes superior blueberry muffins. I really enjoy scones, and think that huckleberries make them only better.
The only trouble with making scones is that the dough is a bit stiff, which can make adding delicate huckleberries a challenge. I’ve gotten around this to a large extent by freezing the berries before they are incorporated into the recipe. The scones recipe I use is adapted from one of my grandmother’s old community church cookbooks, and was attributed to a woman named Edith Hibbard.
There are some shrubs that I prefer to make with fruit that has never been cooked, only macerated with sugar. However, I think it is easier to maximize the flavor and amount of juice in huckleberries by making a cooked syrup.
Preparation time: 2 hours
1 part fruit (all parts by volume, not weight)
3 parts sugar
1 part water
Rice vinegar or other light clear vinegar, equal in measure to the amount of huckleberry syrup
1. In a pot, lightly crush the huckleberries together with the sugar, and let them sit for an hour.
2. Add the water, and bring the huckleberries to a boil. Being such small berries, this is all they need to cook. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the huckleberries cool to room temperature.
3. Strain out the solids from the huckleberry syrup, and be certain to save them to put atop ice cream or your morning toast.
4. Measure the syrup, and combine it with an equal amount of rice vinegar. Stir gently to combine. Pour the shrub into mason jars, and store them in a very cold pantry or refrigerator for at least six months before serving. Once aged, the sharp edges of the vinegar will soften and become the perfect balance for the fruit.
Huckleberry Cream Scones
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon cream
1 egg, beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup huckleberries, frozen
1 tablespoon coarse sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
2. Add in the cubes of butter, and gently toss them with a fork to coat them with flour. Then use the back of the fork to crush the pieces of butter into smaller and smaller pieces as they combine with the flour. Stop when most of the butter is unrecognizable.
3. Make a hole in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Add the ¾ cup cream, egg and vanilla to the depression and use the fork to gently beat them together before gently combining them with the flour and butter. Just before the dough comes together, add the huckleberries. As gently as possible, continue stirring, just until the dough holds together.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and press the dough into a circle 1½ inches thick. Use a butter knife to cut the circle into six wedges. Gently separate the wedges so that they are at least 2 inches apart, and blunt the pointy end with your finger.
5. Brush the top of each with the extra tablespoon of cream, and sprinkle on some of the coarse sugar.
6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the bottoms and tops of the scones are lightly brown.
Main photo: Mountain huckleberries. Credit: Erica Marciniec