Know what these are? I didn't either, at least until last week. They are salal berries, gaultheria shallon. And I would have walked right past them had I not heard them calling my name.
Not literally—I've not yet resorted to talking to plants—but as I wandered around the Coastal Range foothills of Marin County, the sight of these odd-looking berries kept nagging me...
The reason I was in these hills was huckleberries, which are just now coming ripe. Huckleberries, specifically vaccinium ovatum, are the West's answer to the blueberry: dark, tart, sweet orbs that have both a high-bush and a low-bush habit. There are several varieties in the West. All are a pain in the ass to pick in quantity, but are worth the effort. Huckleberries are on everyone's wild berry A-list.
Holly A. Heyser
A friend (thanks, Amy!) told me where to find some, and sure enough, I found a cluster of California huckleberry bushes. Sadly, the reason I know they are just now coming ripe is because more than half the berries in the cluster were still bright red. Sigh. Guess I'll just have to return in a week or so.
I did manage to pick a few cups of berries, however.
Not so much that I could make a full-on huckleberry pie, or enough to process into one of the many fruit syrups I make—well, I could have, but it probably would not have left me with enough berries leftover to make my favorite huckleberry/blueberry dish: huckleberry muffins!
Holly A. Heyser
Now if you've been reading this space for any length of time, you know I am not a habitual baker, especially of sweet baked goods. I'll take a juicy venison steak or some fried halibut over cakes and pies any day. But what that hell was I supposed to do with all these berries I've been collecting? Besides, muffins are easy. And good. If I start making sugar sculpture and working with fondant, come shoot me.
(Incidentally, if you don't live in huckleberry country and want to try them, Earthy Delights will ship fresh ones to you.)
But Hank, um, well, weren't you going to tell us about those freaky salal berries you mentioned a while ago? Yes, yes, but I needed to make those muffins first.
So I left my huckleberry patch in search of other bushes that might be more ripe, and kept walking past this rambling shrub with wide, leathery leaves and these funny-looking berries on them. I barely registered them as I searched for more huckleberries when I spied this:
Whoa. That flower looks almost exactly like either a blueberry flower or a manzanita flower. Both of those are edible ... [wheels begin to turn] ... huh. Lemme look at these funky berries a little closer.
Holly A. Heyser
Bingo! These are definitely edible berries. How did I know? Hard to say, exactly, but I have something of a photographic memory. I knew I'd seen that weird pattern on a blue berry in one of my many foraging books. But what was it, exactly?
Fortunately I'd packed along both the Edible and Useful Plants of California and the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to California. Both books include salal. Not only was it edible, the books said, it was delicious. I ate a few. Good. Nice and sweet, but they lacked the tang of the huckleberries. Still, they were three times the size! I filled a plastic container with them.
As with the huckleberries, I'd not collected enough for a full-on pie, and salal pie is apparently what most people who collect them do with their salal berries. Holly and I didn't want to eat a whole pie between the two of us, anyway, so I decided on a little mini-pie in a ramekin.
Holly A. Heyser
The crust is only on the top, and the berry filling cooks in the ramekin. I made these with four-inch ramekins, which were a little too big for one person—unless you really like sweets. A two-inch ramekin would be perfect for me. Keep in mind that the recipe works with all sorts of berries: blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, thimbleberries, etc.
What's the lesson in all this? To keep your eyes open and your guidebooks handy when you are out in the field. No one has every edible plant memorized, but once you spend enough time reading them, you will begin to see and "hear" the signs edible plants give you—even if you've never seen the plant before. This looks like that, and well, maybe they're in the same family. That sort of knowledge helps you find an unknown plant in a guidebook.
Had I remained locked into huckleberries tunnel vision, I would still have come home with enough for some muffins. But I would have missed out on an opportunity to taste something wholly new to me. And as good as those muffins were, that opportunity was better.
The salal pie wasn't too shabby, either.
More on huckleberries: