This month on Sustainable Eats, you’ve seen our suggestions for foraging dandelions, morels, and a savory dinner. Our guides have been some of the best foragers on the West Coast. But for the uninitiated, the doorway into foraging is often through the sweet tooth. This is true in my family too, where wild berries are the incentive I use to get my family into the woods.
This time of year, there’s really only one game in town: the salmonberry. It’s the first sweet thing to ripen around here, beating out just about every other fruit in both farm and forest. You’ll spot the first ripe berries along stream banks in the lowlands, then increasingly in drier areas and at higher elevations (I harvest mine near the ponds at Seattle’s Discovery Park).
This earliness offers the fruit some advantages. First, it beats by a month the pest insects that infest so many of our soft berries later in the summer. August blackberries may be sweeter, but you have to ignore what’s squirming around inside of them. And as stated before, salmonberries ripen first. So you prefer our local huckleberries? Good luck finding them in the last week of May.
If you’ve tried and failed to fall in love with salmonberries, I’ll let you in on a little secret. The only thing separating them from the big boys (such as blackberries) is sugar content. Fruits need an unforgiving sun to develop sugars, and many of our native berries favor the shade of the forest floor, where they develop subtle, woodsy flavors. They may express terroir, but it’s nothing you’d want to put on top of your grandma’s shortcake. But add a little sugar and you’re in for a big, delicious surprise. These berries don’t just compete, they rock.
I understand why you would not want to eat sugary preserves all the time. But there’s something delightful about playing the “what if this tasted sweet” game with our native berries. What if oregon grape – that sour berry that tastes a little like lettuce – had high sugar content? Answer: it makes a wonderful jam with an unusual taste. Repeat the experiment with salal berries, and you’ll discover a secret cinammon flavor. Once you’ve used sugar to discover the hidden joys of one of our native berries, you’ll want to try them all. For me, this activity transforms every simple hike in the woods into a treasure hunt.
To wrap up foraging month here at Sustainable Eats, we’re offering you this challenge: Take a walk in the lowland woods, somewhere near a stream, and harvest a few cups full of salmonberries. If you live somewhere else, you can substitute another wild berry of course. Sweeten them with sugar and eat them on top of something. Then, post a comment here and tell us about your experience.
Sweetened Salmonberries on a Biscuit
4 cups salmonberries, gently rinsed, drained and tossed with 1/4 cup of sugar.
Cornmeal-Maple Biscuits (based loosely on recipe from King Arthur Whole Grain Baking):
1 cup (4.875 ounces) cornmeal
1 cup (4 ounces) all-purpose flour (I used fresh ground soft white wheat)
1 T baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 T unsalted butter
1/2 c buttermilk (ordinary milk will work in a pinch)
1/4 cup maple syrup
Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter. Combine liquids and stir into dry mix until just moistened. Form into ball, flatten to 1/2 inch thick, slice in eighths like a pie, dip in flour to prevent sticking and spread on a cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Top with salmonberry topping and serve warm.