Hankering for huckleberries

August 10, 2005|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

You know Huckleberry Finn and Huckleberry Hound. But do you know the fruit for which they are named?

You may not, given the confusion that swirls around the term huckleberry. In Maryland, four species of huckleberries are found. Here it is a little blue fruit with 10 hard seeds that make it less than a culinary delicacy. Some folks also call the state's wild blueberries huckleberries.

But head west to Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and you'll find people who have an entirely different idea of what a huckleberry is.

Gift shops sell huckleberry jelly, candies, soaps and lotions. Restaurants serve salads with huckleberry vinaigrette and burgers with savory huckleberry sauce.

Scott Hill, chef and an owner of Hill's Resort in Priest Lake, Idaho, serves guests huckleberry pie, huckleberry ice cream and huckleberry pancakes. He even makes a huckleberry daiquiri.

"There's no other berry you can compare it with," says Hill.

Although similar to blueberries, huckleberries have a more intense aroma and flavor, which chefs prize.

"They have another flavor, compared to the blueberry," says Hill, who believes the rugged mountains and short growing season help to concentrate the huckleberries' flavor. "To me, it just has more of a sharp flavor. It's a little more of a berry flavor."

Huckleberry season is just starting and from now until the end of September, pickers will be flocking to their favorite - and often secret - spots in the mountains out West to gather the fruit.

While much of it will end up on local tables or packaged in products for gift shops, increasingly the berries are finding their way east, to fine restaurants in Chicago and New York.

"It used to be a Northwest secret, but it's starting to get out," says John Anderson, president of Foods in Season, a family-owned business that packages and sells huckleberries online for $23.95 per half gallon. Each year sales of huckleberries grow, he says.

Conservative estimates put the huckleberry business at $11 million a year, says Danny L. Barney, a horticultural specialist at the University of Idaho.

Primarily two kinds of huckleberries are gathered in the West: black huckleberries and Cascade or blue huckleberries. Neither is closely related to the Eastern and Southeastern huckleberries, the kind found in Maryland and the fruit after which Mark Twain chose to call his literary hero.

"In Twain's time, [huckleberry] had a negative connotation. Huck was a rascal," Barney says. The fruit the Westerners call huckleberries are more closely related to blueberries, although huckleberry enthusiasts say there really is no comparison.

The problem, however, is there aren't enough huckleberries to go around. "The areas that are accessible are getting over-harvested," Barney says.

No one has succeeded in commercially growing huckleberries, but Barney believes that will change soon. He has been growing and experimenting with various strains of huckleberries in hopes of coming up with plants that will be grown commercially.

Huckleberries can be picky plants - preferring high altitudes and acidic soil. Unlike blueberries, their skins often rupture when they are picked. But Barney believes a commercially viable huckleberry could be on the market in three or four years.

His work has gotten a mixed reaction from the huckleberry gatherers and processors.

Critics contend a cultivated huckleberry will erode demand for the real thing. But Barney believes that there always will be demand for wild huckleberries and that developing a domesticated huckleberry will save the wild berries.

Hearing Westerners talk about their huckleberries can fill an Easterner with envy. Anderson has tasted the famed Maine blueberries and can't see what all the fuss is about.

Of course, in a pinch, blueberries can be substituted for any huckleberry recipe. And even Maryland's modest huckleberries can be baked in a pie.

"Some people use them and enjoy them," Barney says diplomatically. "Of course, if you have enough sugar, anything is good."

Where to get huckleberries

Wild huckleberries are available online at:

www.nwwildfoods.com

www.foodsinseason .com

Huckleberry jams, candies and other products are available at:

www.huckleberry haven.com

Hill's Huckleberry Daiquiri

Makes 1 serving

1 1/4 ounces white rum

1/4 cup huckleberries

1 tablespoon simple syrup ( 1/2 sugar and 1/2 water)

1 1/2 cups ice

1/4 cup orange juice

orange slice and cherry for optional garnish

Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth. Serve in a tall glass and garnish with an orange slice and a cherry if desired.

- Chef Scott Hill

Per serving: 155 calories; 1 gram protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 18 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1 milligram sodium

Huckleberry Merlot Sauce

Makes about 1 cup

1/2 cup huckleberries

1 tablespoon minced shallot

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup merlot or other red wine

1/4 cup demiglace (reduced beef stock)

salt and pepper to taste

1 ounce butter

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