Foraging for wild edibles is like going on nature’s treasure hunt. With a little know-how, the rewards you reap can make you feel both self-sufficient and resourceful. A forager should know a thing or two about botany, local climate, and growing seasons. It also helps to have an adventurous spirit, a love of the outdoors, and loads of patience. Especially patience.
You’ll need sturdy hiking shoes, long pants & sleeves (to protect against poison oak), and a container for your harvest. I also recommend carrying a pair of disposable latex gloves to guard against thorns, and a handy field guide or other identification resource.
A fruitful forage depends on good timing. Start your quest too early in the season and the object of your desire may not be ripe (or even visible in the case of those elusive winter mushrooms). Wait too long and you’ll likely find vines and branches stripped clean by birds and other critters who beat you to the harvest. In Northern California, August is the perfect month to forage for the seasonal wild blackberries and huckleberries that grow like weeds in our coastal hills.
Lucky for me my friend and colleague Elizabeth Hill, who owns West Marin Food & Farm Tours, is an accomplished forager. She spent childhood summers exploring the local hills around her grandparent’s Inverness home, and picking wild huckleberries that her grandmother transformed into delicious tarts. Elizabeth knows the terraine and best spots to find berries, so I asked if I could tag along on a recent hunt. To my delight, she graciously agreed.
We drove to a nearby trailhead and set out on a narrow, uphill path flanked by dense vegetation and tall pines. As we trekked toward the ridge line, Elizabeth began pointing out the tiny huckleberries growing in clusters on tall, thornless bushes along the trail. They looked like blueberries–only about a third of the size. To make her grandmother’s tart recipe, I needed to collect 4 cups of huckleberries–which was a lot considering their size. To add to the challenge, the largest and ripest fruit were mostly up high on the branches overhead.
Elizabeth came prepared for the hunt. She carried a simple collection bucket made from a recycled plastic milk carton which hung around her neck, leaving both hands free for picking. Ingenious! And those fruit-laden branches just beyond reach did not pose a problem for her. A basic metal clothes hanger served as the perfect assist for pulling branches closer. Clearly this was not her first rodeo.
We each chose an area and set to work.
Plunk. Plunk, plunk–went the ripe berries as they fell into our buckets. Of course, I tasted a few as I went along; you know, for “quality control.” Roughly two hours later we had picked enough berries to meet our needs.
The work continued when I got home. In my haste to pick berries, I left the tiny stems intact which needed to be removed by hand before baking. There were also leaves and pine needles in my bucket to sort out. It was a meticulous process that took an extra hour. Better picking etiquette on the front end would have saved me considerable time. Lesson learned.
In the end, the result was well worth the time invested. This tart is one of the best things I’ve ever made! It is, quite simply, perfection on a plate. The sweet-tart essence of baked wild huckleberries is an exquisite delight that should not be missed. Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing the day and your grandmother’s award-winning Huckleberry Tart recipe with me!
Norma’s Huckleberry Tart (in honor of Norma Wells)
- 1 cup flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 cup chilled butter cut into small chunks
- 1 tablespoon milk (or non-dairy substitute)
Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until they come together in a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 10 minutes while you prepare the filling.
- 2 cups huckleberries + 2 cups reserved to place on top of the baked tart
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- pinch of salt
In a large bowl, gently toss all the ingredients together until combined. Set aside.
- Preheat oven to 400
- Line the bottom of a 9″ springform pan a sheet of parchment paper and coat the sides of the pan lightly with butter to prevent sticking.
- Remove the chilled crust dough from the refrigerator. Working with your fingers, press the dough into the bottom of the pan and up the side about 1″ high.
- Pour huckleberry filling over the crust and bake for 40 minutes on the center rack of the oven.
- Remove and immediately pour the remaining fresh huckleberries over the top of the baked tart. The warmth from the filling underneath will partly cook these berries.
- Allow to cool. Remove the springform pan and transfer to a serving plate. Slice and garnish with vanilla ice cream.