The wild huckleberry (Vaccinum membranaceum or Vaccinum deliciosum) is a tasty relative of the blueberry, but it’s much more elusive. In appearance, huckleberries are very nearly identical to blueberries, but they’re smaller and their flavor has an “edge” which is missing in domestic berries. The flavor of wild huckleberries, as is true of many wild things, is more complicated and less obvious than the flavor of their tame cousins. While a fresh huckleberry may look like a blueberry, it tastes a whole lot different – tarter, sweeter, juicier & more intense.
Unlike the blueberry, the huckleberry has thus far resisted efforts to cultivate it. If you want fresh huckleberries, you still have to get them from the wild, whether you pick them yourself or buy them from someone else who foraged them.
The origin of the name ‘huckleberry’ is rather interesting. It seems most likely that it’s a variation on a traditional, old-time English name, either ‘hurtleberry’ or ‘whortleberry,’ for the closely related bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Upon arriving in North America, English settlers applied the name freely to many different berry-bearing plants with small red, blue or nearly black fruit.
It’s also interesting to note the significant role (now largely forgotten) that huckleberries played in early pioneer culture. The word “huckleberry” itself was once important in homespun American language and the range of meanings in 19th century slang was extremely wide. The small size of the berries led to their use as a way of referring to something small or dear (remember the phrase, “my huckleberry friend” in the lyrics of Moon River ?). The saying “a huckleberry over my persimmon” meant “a little beyond my abilities”. Legend has it that Doc Holliday said “I’m your huckleberry” to Wyatt Earp before the famous gunfight at the OK corral, meaning that he was the right man for the job.
Huckleberry Crisp with Walnut Topping
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 ¼ sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
- 1 cup chopped fresh walnuts
- 8 cups huckleberries, fresh or frozen (about 2½ pounds)
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1½ tablespoons cornstarch
- 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
For the topping:
Put the 6 topping ingredients into a large bowl. Mix together using a whisk until moist lumps form. Set aside.
For the filling:
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Place the huckleberries in a bowl and add the sugar, lemon juice, cornstarch and cinnamon. Mix or toss gently but thoroughly to blend.
Pour the berry mixture into an ungreased 13 x 9 x 2 inch baking dish OR into individual serving-sized ramekins. Spread evenly and sprinkle with the topping mixture. Slip into the preheated oven and bake until the topping is golden brown and the filling is bubbling, about 50 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before serving. Wonderful warm or at room temperature!
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