Humans are funny, food-obsessed creatures. Our strongest memories tend to be related to our sense of smell and taste. For me, one of the memories I have held so dear since I moved from Montana to California 27 years ago was the tart and indescribable flavor and smell of the huckleberry. As a now avid forager, I am embarrassed to say that until a few years ago I thought the only way I would experience the joy of picking a ripe, tangy huckle off the bush again was to travel back to my childhood home. The day I discovered the delicious variety that thrives along the Northern California coast…the clouds parted, angels sang, it was glorious.
The huckleberry packs a tasty punch and firm bite. Honestly, flavor-wise, there isn’t a single fruit out there that is its match.
Vaccinium ovatum, or the California Huckleberry (aka: evergreen huckleberry) is a blackish/purplish small, firm berry that is sometimes referred to as the blueberries wild cousin. I beg to differ. The huckleberry only slightly physically resembles the domesticated blueberry in that it is round and purplish. The flavor, however, is incomparable. While domesticated blueberries are more often than not smushy and insipid, the huckleberry packs a tasty punch and firm bite. Honestly, flavor-wise, there isn’t a single fruit out there that is its match. And unlike other wild berries (thimbleberries, salmonberries, blackberries) the huckleberry travels well and is hard to destroy getting it home and into your pie.
Huckleberry bushes grow in relative abundance in NorCal as long as you know where to look. The sun-sheltered areas among the firs and redwoods are the perfect environments for the sometimes shy huckleberry. They need relatively little sunlight so they thrive deep in the forest. Look for it’s shiny bright dark green, serrated leaves during the late summer and early fall. Look for hazel bushes and pine trees, especially fir and redwood. Huckleberry bushes can grow to over 10 feet tall; so don’t limit your field of vision to typical bush or briar height. Stinging nettles are BFFs with Huckles, so wear long sleeves and pants when on the hunt. I have found the most efficient way of gathering huckleberries is to hold a bag open under the branch and gently slide my fingers down the branch to pop off the berries that are ready to be picked.
A quick note on foraging: check the local rules and laws of the park or forest that you are visiting. Most state parks in California do NOT allow collection of any type, including berries and mushrooms. If collection is allowed, don’t be a pig. Personally when I am foraging I never collect more than 10% of what is available. Animals, birds and other humans share the forest with you, respect this.
Enjoy your Huckles with the following recipe around your morning campfire, or at home.
Yield: 6 pancakes
1 ½ cups cake flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ cups milk
¼ cup orange juice
4 tablespoons butter, melted, plus more for skillet
1 cup freshly caught huckleberries
In a large bowl, blend together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, mix well.
In another bowl, vigorously mix melted butter, milk, OJ and the egg. You want a very homogenized looking liquid.
Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the liquid mixture. VERY GENTLY stir (I use a fork as it gives better control) for no longer than 15 seconds. Your batter will be slightly lumpy, this is totally cool.
Again, very gently mix in the berries, just until evenly distributed. The reason we are being gentle with the batter is to avoid the development of the gluten; more gluten development = tougher pancakes.
Let your batter rest for about 10 minutes. At this time, preheat your cast iron skillet over medium heat.
Once your batter has had a rest, add a small amount of butter to your skillet, just enough to evenly coat the bottom of the pan.
Using a ½ cup scoop, spread the batter into the skillet.
Once you see little bubbles around the edge of the pancake (about 3-5 minutes), flip. Cook 1-2 minutes more and set on a plate while you complete you remaining pancakes.
Sometimes (read: all the time) my first pancake comes out ugly, burned or just plain not right…that’s ok, give it to your dog or the raccoon who has been watching you while you cook.
Enjoy with a pat of salted butter and some maple syrup, the real stuff please.