Berries foraged in the forests we pass on the road to somewhere yield a taste of wild places.
Their names are playful: squashberries, wild beach plums, mayhaw, snowberries and the dreamily named cloudberry. Wild berries often have as many aliases as a career criminal, such as mooseberry and chuckleyplum. And they hide out, remaining at large, with their locations guarded as zealously as online passwords by locals who apprehend them for making jams, jellies and syrups.
When we agree to pay the sometimes-steep ransom they demand, after they’ve been tamed into jars, we’re rewarded with delicacies that are a bit like a message in a bottle from a place we once saw.
These edible gemstones of the natural landscape have been sought after as long as man and animal have been combing woods, shorelines, meadows, pine barrens, swamps and mountainsides for food.
In our commercial food system, noncultivated berries seem exotic. These are comestibles you can’t easily obtain at the local grocery in every region of North America. Wild is a luxury.
Among those luxuries is the thimbleberry, named for its thimble shape. (Explain that tool to the kids.) It grows in the Great Lakes region, Washington, Oregon, California and Canada’s British Columbia, among other locales.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula fully embraces the thimbleberry. In the U.P., as it’s known, thimbleberries are harvested in woods, along Lake Superior and beside abandoned rail lines. U.P. farm stands display wild thimbleberry jam made by locals and, in one location, by Byzantine Catholic monks who operate the Jampot near Eagle Harbor.
The fruit isn’t commercially cultivated because it has a fragile nature, breaking up almost on touch. As a result, it’s sold for not-cheap prices. Michigan makers include American Spoon, a Petoskey-based company that has garnered five national awards for its wild thimbleberry jam.
“The thimbleberry is remarkably layered,” says American Spoon co-founder Justin Rashid. “The first taste is tannic. Then you get a kind of wild-rose aroma.”
Its seeds, he says, “release a kind of nutty aftertaste.”
The only companion it needs, he says, is a simple piece of buttered whole-wheat toast. He has also had U.P. foragers tell him they like a spoonful of thimbleberry jam with fresh Finnish squeaky cheese as an accompaniment to their morning coffee.
Using fruits from local foragers, American Spoon also preserves wild elderberries, blueberries and blackberries.
Rashid says elderberries taste dark, rich and mysterious.
“The first thing that hits me is a faint, pleasing bitterness,” he says. “Then it kind of fills your palate with a complex flavor.” (They should not be eaten raw.)
Most regions have a berry pride. There are wild blueberries in Maine and Oregon; squashberries in Newfoundland, Canada; salmonberries in California and the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska; beach plums in Massachusetts and neighboring Atlantic Seaboard states; cloudberries in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Alaska; mayhaw in the South, including Louisiana (where it’s made into the official state jelly), and dewberry in Texas. Huckleberry is Idaho’s official fruit.
On Newfoundland’s remote Fogo Island, the restaurant at the Fogo Island Inn turns out dishes that reflect the nearly two-dozen varieties of wild berries that populate the surrounding craggy terrain.
“The berry we use most is the partridgeberry, also the wild blueberry,” says the inn’s executive chef, Jonathan Gushue. The inn relies on locals for that stock. “Berry picking is very big here,” Gushue says. “Everyone does it.”
The resulting bounty used in the hotel kitchen also includes cloudberries, juniperberries, marshberries, crowberries — and snowberries, “when we can get them,” he says.
In early July this year, Fogo’s du jour menu offered a fresh meringue with cream and toasted meringue highlighted by partridgeberries with rhubarb. The inn also served roasted red cabbage with a dried blueberry-brown butter vinaigrette. “The tannins in these berries act very much like wine,” Gushue says. “They pull things out of the foods.”
Fogo Island Inn pastry chef Sarah Villamere works amid the aromas of spruce tips and birch syrup simmering on the stove, a reflection of an island where foragers show up at the kitchen’s back door with berries and invoices.
“We don’t turn anything away when it comes to us,” Villamere says. As she chats on the phone, she says she has blueberries bathing in birch syrup.
“When our blueberries and bakeapples and marshberries come in, that’s what we do,” she says. “We dehydrate a lot of berries for granola and trail mixes.”
They quick-freeze berries or make jams, vinegars and cordials.
Villamere says that in Newfoundland, wild berries are about folkways, such as the prized molasses-partridgeberry jam tart and salt-cod sandwich with jam and cheddar. Villamere says she enjoys pairing partridgeberry with dark chocolate. She says the jam also goes well with moose loin or duck breast, “a little dollop on the side like a mint sauce.”
Home cooks in search of recipes that reflect a region can check cooperative extension websites associated with a public university where berries are native. The National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia provides a wealth of information on how to safely prepare foraged fruits.
In the berry-rich 49th state, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service provides information, recipes and tips for enjoying a long list of free-range fruits, including the peach-colored cloudberry.
Scandinavians, the website notes, “make a ‘cloudberry cream,’ by mixing berries or prepared jam with sweetened whipped cream.”
Before gathering wild berries in U.S. national parks, would-be foragers are encouraged to visit the specific park website or to contact the park directly in advance.
“National Park superintendents have the authority to designate certain fruits, berries, nuts or unoccupied seashells that may be gathered by hand for personal use or consumption if it will not adversely affect park wildlife, plants or other park resources,” says Jeremy K. Barnum, acting assistant director of National Park Service communications.
Similarly, those hoping to pick berries on national forest land should contact their local forest or grasslands office to learn whether foraging is allowed and if a permit is required, a Forest Service spokeswoman said.
On their way to our plates and bowls, wild berries can take more effort to locate and handle than their grocery-store cousins.
Elderberries, for example, are challenging to harvest, so they don’t show up in markets as fresh fruit. As a result, consumers don’t know about them, says Marvin Pritts, professor of horticulture at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
In general, Pritts adds, people consume a “tiny fraction” of the world’s edible plant species.
We could benefit from wider-ranging appetites. The chokeberry, Pritts says, has the highest-known antioxidant level of any fruit: “It’s off the charts.”
Across the continent, native North Americans dried berries and used them as sweetener. Minnesota-based Red Lake Nation Foods sells products that reflect the heritage of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.
Rashid, of American Spoon, is reminded of that history when he ventures into the natural landscape. He spent his boyhood summers roaming the family acreage, not far from where his company is now based. Now, he takes his grandchildren.
“I want them to be at home in the woods,” he says. “It’s a wonderful reminder that, as good as we’ve gotten at cultivating the planet, the origin of everything is wild. This is how we got here. We’ve still got that DNA. It takes us to our roots. It connects you.”
Rebecca Powers is a Detroit-based freelance writer.