By: Bryan Jessop I just got back from the Sierra Nevada mountains where one thing is clear: it’s berry season. As I rumbled down dirt logging roads I passed elderberry bush after bush with branches sagging under the weight of their fruit. At my first stop I was picking thorny gooseberries by the leather-gloved handful. Then it was the golden currants and thimbleberries that finally presented me with the forager’s dilemma – too much fruit, too little time. You may have noticed that the prices of your favorite little fruits are bottoming out right now, and that means conditions are ripe for berries. And while jumbo-sized GMO strawberri
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By: Bryan Jessop
I just got back from the Sierra Nevada mountains where one thing is clear: it’s berry season. As I rumbled down dirt logging roads I passed elderberry bush after bush with branches sagging under the weight of their fruit. At my first stop I was picking thorny gooseberries by the leather-gloved handful. Then it was the golden currants and thimbleberries that finally presented me with the forager’s dilemma – too much fruit, too little time.
You may have noticed that the prices of your favorite little fruits are bottoming out right now, and that means conditions are ripe for berries. And while jumbo-sized GMO strawberries are an impressive triumph over nature and we all love the convenience of frozen blueberries, no farmed berry can compare to the intensity of flavor of its wild ancestor. Anyone who has tasted a wild strawberry or eaten a handful of ripe huckleberries can attest to that. In the process of designing berries for size and yield, we’ve sacrificed flavor and nutrition.
Berries taste good. In fact I would argue that they’re some of the tastiest natural foods out there. It’s why we flavor our candies and pies like them. And maybe there’s an evolutionary reason that we adore these flavors. Nutritionists will often point out the astonishing health benefits of berries, which are packed with brain-boosting antioxidant phytonutrients. Did you know that a single serving of farmed blueberries has as much antioxidants as five servings of broccoli or carrots? Now consider that a wild blueberry or huckleberry is smaller, which means more skin to volume and more antioxidants still. Top that with research showing that wild fruit is much higher in fiber, protein, vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous, and you’ve got a pretty compelling case for picking those berries that are mostly left for the birds. In short, wild berries are superfoods.
So what’s out there right now? Blackberries must be the best known and most widely collected. Many of us know the joy of popping a sun-ripened blackberry straight off the vine and into your mouth. But northern California is host to a number of other wild berries. A partial list would include elderberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, chokecherries, black and golden currants, Sierra gooseberries, white stemmed raspberries, wild grapes, wild strawberries, and both red and evergreen (aka purple) huckleberries. As the summer sun bakes our California landscapes, wild spaces become candy shops full of diverse and delightful treats.
I’ve been learning about some of the lesser-appreciated California berries as part of my venture to provide chefs with extraordinary local foods:
Sierra gooseberry is a low-lying shrub that’s related to currants. However unlike currants, the spiny skin of gooseberries means they need to be collected with thick gardening gloves and pulverized before eating.
OK, now I want to talk about elderberries. These may be the most abundant, unappreciated berries in California. The first thing you need to know is that the leaves, stems, and under-ripe berries are mildly toxic. Many sources suggest that even the ripe berries shouldn’t be eaten raw, but I’ve never had any problem eating small handfuls right off the bush. In fact, the flavor can vary significantly from bush to bush so I prefer to taste them before I start filling my pack. Good berries will be bright but not sour, like a mildly sweet blueberry, but with a subtle pungency. On rare occasions, I’ve encountered elderberries so pungent that I spit them out. But if you catch them at the right stage, a single berry cluster can weigh over a pound and even a small bush may have dozens of ripe clusters. How much do you need? It depends. To make a pint of shrub, only about a cup. For a gallon of wine, you’ll need at least 5 pounds of cleaned berries.
Elderberry shrub is a classic preparation and very simple to make. A shrub is a vinegar-syrup. Just combine 1 cup crushed elderberries with 1 cup apple cider vinegar. Let it sit overnight to infuse the vinegar, then strain into a pot and add 1 cup sugar. Boil long enough to dissolve the sugar, then bottle and store indefinitely in the fridge. Mix it into sparkling water for a refreshing summer drink or use it straight in place of balsamic.
As with any craft, the process for making elderberry wine is only as complicated as the skill of the artisan allows. I’m a novice to fermentation, so I’m trying a simple recipe from Los Angeles forager Pascal Baudar’s book The New Wildcrafted Cuisine. The ingredients are elderberry juice, water, sugar, yeast, and time – it should be ready to drink in about a year.
While it typically takes only a few minutes at the right bush to collect your fill of elderberries, most wild berries are far less forgiving.
Consider the delectable huckleberry. By the middle of August, huckleberries are beginning to ripen on our foggy north coast. While at the peak of the season it can look like a veritable smorgasbord, just try collecting enough for a single pie. Picking huckleberries in any large quantity can be daunting – I can get about 2 lbs per hour when I’m in a flow state. Cleaning them can be tedious and takes equally long.
Are huckleberries really worth all this trouble? Yes. Yes they are. Personally I can never get enough – I would eat my weight in huckleberries each year if I could afford it. Not only are they my favorite-tasting berry and one of my all-around favorite foods, they are truly one of the healthiest foods we can eat. Last season I was lucky to meet a forager on the Oregon coast who sold me his haul. Even the forager-direct price would have been astronomical for any domesticated berry, but having gathered and processed them myself I knew I got a great deal. This season I’ll buy all I can get my hands on for chefs and friends who want to supplement their take. Maybe I’ll even splurge and make a huckleberry pie.
Many people are content to munch on a few berries as they hike, but for those who want to satisfy their huck cravings year-round, here are some tips for obtaining a larger harvest:
I love sharing my foraged finds with others, but I’ll admit I get stingy when it comes to huckleberries. I set aside a small amount to be eaten fresh, then stash the rest away in the freezer. Throughout the year, I’ll thaw them out one handful at a time and put them in my morning granola, cereal, and pancakes – any time I think I need a boost of nutrition or when I’m feeling worthy of a hard-earned treat.
What’s your favorite wild berry? Any harvesting tips or recipe ideas? Let me know!
Bryan Jessop is a professional forager and wild food enthusiast. His wild berries, mushrooms, greens, and edible flowers can be found on the menus of some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants. Follow his business Morchella Wild Foods on Facebook or Instagram, or check out his website www.morchellawildfoods.com to see what sustainable wild foods are in-season and in-demand from SF’s top chefs.