Monday, July 13, 2009

Huckleberry Hounds

One thing that I didn't even know existed until I moved to North Idaho was the mountain huckleberry. It's not the same huckleberry that grows east of the Rockies but is actually a wild cousin of the blueberry which also grows in the wild in addition to being domesticated. As far as I know the mountain huckleberry that grows in the western parts of North America has never been successfully cultivated to produce its fruit in commercially large scale amounts.
Huckleberries are very much part of the culture here. Even our Costco carries huckleberry jam! I have two cookbooks both written on the huckleberry and how to use them. Go to the local farmers market and a one gallon zip lock bag full of these little gems is going to set you back $30 to $40 because picking them is so labor intensive
But they do deserve the attention because they are so extraordinarily good tasting. Huckleberries are a blueberry with an attitude. They are tart and sweet at the same time and will leave you calling their domesticated cousins "blawberries"! I make batches of huckleberry jam to ship out to my family in California and though they have never tasted a huckleberry before I have no doubt in my mind that they are going to love it. It's so good that they hide it from others and ration it out!
The huckleberries that grow here in North Idaho generally occur in altitudes above 3000ft. We usually take a drive up the local forestry roads to check on their progress ripening in late June but these last two winters have had such great snow totals we have been able to wait until early July to check on them. In contrast, during hotter summers following a lighter winter, we have completely all of our picking before the 4th of July.
Of course the higher in altitude or further north you travel the later the huckleberry season begins. We have seen grizzly bears in Glacier National Park feasting on ripe huckleberries in mid-September. On the subjects of bears, it is a good idea to carry a can of bear repellent when picking huckleberries because they like them, too. Some of the best huckleberry picking we've experienced has been in grizzly country over in western Montana.
Huckleberry picking has become a tradition in this household for over a decade. I think the only season I missed was when I gave birth to my daughter the summer of 2002 and still a great neighbor was kind enough to bring us a half gallon of them. This year we added another picker to our team, Bentley, our new boxer pup who after tasting a few huckleberries began picking them off the bushes himself. I'm not too sure if that is a good thing because who needs the competition?

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