“Are you going up to Montana again this summer?” Diane asked.
“I was thinking about it. I don’t have a real need to be down here in Texas, and let’s face it, the summers in Montana are a LOT better than they are in Austin. By the time we get to August, it’s full-on misery here. So um, yeah, I’ll be going back up,” I said.
“Good. Bring back huckleberries,” she commanded.
Huckleberries, if you have not had them, are this tiny berry that grows only at high altitudes in northwestern Montana, northern Idaho, eastern Washington, and southern British Columbia and Alberta. They are a favorite of bears, and dad reports that they were the preferred fruit for making pemmican. During years with heavy winter snowpack and lots of moisture, the berries grow thick and clustered and are difficult to pick. In drought years, the berries still come, but they are smaller and even more difficult to pick. As Diane grew up in Polson, Montana, a hamlet on the southern edge of Flathead Lake, she knows what huckleberries are. She also knows that is impossible to get them here in Texas unless you have someone willing to drive there and back again with Yeti coolers.
As I was bunking with Laurie and Bobo, my aunt and uncle that live there in Missoula, we decreed that Wednesday to be Huckleberry Day. We took off one mid-August morning, chucking Eleanor, Beatrice, and Greta (my two dogs and their dog, because what good is an adventure if the dogs don’t come along) in the back along with sunblock, plastic bags, and extra water. We drove southwest, almost into Idaho, and then began climbing up an old forest-service road. Once we left the highway, it took us an hour to drive up that road to the berry-picking grounds. The dogs grew tired of wondering when the adventure would start and retreated to the back of the car to catch yet another nap.
The three of us spent that hot summer afternoon picking berries. Our reward for three hours of picking? Combined, we gathered up about three-quarters of a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. We also gathered several bug bites, scrapes from clambering over logs and rocks and sliding down the hill, but we were ecstatic and happy with our bounty. Now might also be a good time to mention that huckleberries can be procured at farmers’ markets and roadside stands in areas in which they are native during August. You’ll pay through the nose for them–think $50 for a gallon bag–but for those that need a huckleberry fix and weren’t able to pick enough of their own, you’ll empty your wallet in order to fill your cooler.
So now that we have huckleberries, what exactly do we do with them? Two words: freeze them. And believe it or not, how you freeze them is important. To do the job right, you’ll need several metal baking sheets and some empty freezer space.
- Pre-freeze the metal baking sheets. This will help the berries to not stick to the sheets when you freeze the berries.
- On the frozen baking sheet, lay the huckleberries in a single layer. Berries should not touch one another or be stacked on top of other berries.
- Freeze the berries for an hour. You’ll know they’re completely frozen if they are as hard as BBs and bounce on the floor should one escape the friendly confines of the baking sheet.
- Using a metal spatula, remove the berries from the baking sheet.
- Bag the berries in sandwich-size Ziploc bags in 1-2 cup portions, removing as much air as possible from the bags. (By using smaller bags, it will make it easier to use them as you won’t have to chisel them out of a larger bag.) It might also be worthwhile double-bagging the frozen berries.
And now that you have huckleberries, here are a few ideas on how to make good use of them.
- Huckleberry crisp. One year, a summer with lots of rain, Laurie and Bobo brought me some huckleberries, so I made us a huckleberry crisp for dessert. It was a banner year, and the huckleberries were so swollen that I had to leave a crisp in the oven for two-and-a-half hours. When I pulled it from the oven, it was thick and jammy and delicious. Laurie and Bobo and I ate small portions, still hot from the oven, trying to make it last forever. I think my dad still dreams of that particular crisp.
- Huckleberry ice cream. Bobo has an ice-cream maker, and it sees heavy use during the summer. Instead of making strawberry ice cream, huckleberry ice cream will do the trick.
- Huckleberry crepes. On special occasions or if you have done something very, very good, Diane makes huckleberry crepes for breakfast, even having cream and huckleberry syrup on the side. Mike joins in by cooking up an entire pound of peppered bacon. The sweetness of the berries and cream and syrup against the peppered bacon is perfection. Huckleberry crepes are, if I do say, perfection. There is no better breakfast to be had. The photo for this blog post is of my dad enjoying a Thanksgiving repast of huckleberry crepes.
- Huckleberry mules. Besides huckleberries, I brought back a couple bottles of huckleberry vodka. Some were stock bottles from area liquor stores, one near my cousin Sarah in Bozeman, and one was one was a specialty bottle from a bar in Missoula. Diane and I did some taste testing (you know, for research purposes), the one we liked best was from an Idaho-based distillery called 44 North.
I do have plans to drive north again in August. (I’m driving so that I can take the dogs so that they can go on hikes and swim in irrigation ditches and eat ice cream at drive-thrus.) Diane has already requested huckleberries and vodka, and Dad and I are working to get him up to Missoula so that I’ll have plenty of berries to take back with me. At some point I fear that I’ll need a bigger Yeti or a refrigerated truck to make the journey possible.
Lastly, for those wondering just where oh where I lifted the title of this blog post, it’s from “Tombstone.” Doc Holliday meets Johnny Ringo, and Holliday supposedly utters these words before shooting Ringo dead. My brother took quite a liking to this movie, even going so far as dressing up as Wyatt Earp for Halloween one year. Good thing he had the facial hair for it.