Nature’s sweetest bites taste best in the West. Here’s a guide to the pick of the season.
By Jennifer ReesePublished March 4, 2019
Berries grow pretty much everywhere in the United States, but nowhere do they flourish in such abundance and variety as they do in certain delicious pockets of the West. Long springs and mild summers allow the berries to ripen slowly, producing deeper colors, richer flavors, and more sugar in the fruit.
Washington is the nation’s biggest provider of red raspberries, while Oregon is the leader in blackberries. California’s Central Coast goes crazy for olallieberries, and some of the best huckleberries in the world are found in Idaho, which proclaimed the huckleberry its state fruit in 2000.
Berries beg to be devoured at fairs, festivals, and farmers’ markets. They’re irresistible in jams, jellies, pies, and ice cream. Nothing, though, compares to the joy of plucking a plump, juicy, sun-warmed berry and eating it right off the stem. Here’s a road map to some of the West’s most flavorful tastings.
You can walk into many supermarkets at almost any time of year and find fresh strawberries imported from Mexico, but the first local berries to turn up each spring have a special magic. They’re tastier than imported berries, which are bred for durability rather than flavor, and when the first local fruits ripen, they’re a harbinger of sweeter things to come.
Well, sweeter things may never come if you live in Oregon, where the strawberries are almost like candy. Because the fruit ripens at such a leisurely pace, Oregon farms produce fewer strawberries per acre than their counterparts in California, but what they lack in quantity they make up in quality. Oregon strawberries are intensely red and intensely sweet, especially the beloved Hood, which is red all the way through and has a distinctive bulge at the top. Look for pesticide-free, sustainably grown Hoods at the Thompson Farms stand in Damascus, Oregon. 24727 SE Bohna Park Rd., (503) 658-4640.
Huckleberries, wrote New Englander Henry David Thoreau, grow “wild all over the country—wholesome, bountiful and free, a real ambrosia.” Too bad Thoreau, one of the world’s greatest huckleberry enthusiasts, never got to visit the Idaho panhandle, arguably the world’s greatest huckleberry terrain. The big, luscious mountain berries were a staple in the diet of Northwest American Indians, who made combs out of salmon backbones and wood to strip the fruit from its branches.
While you’ll occasionally find them in farmers’ markets, if you want fresh huckleberries you may have to strip the fruit from the branches too. Huckleberries grow in profusion on state and national parkland throughout Idaho and Oregon. For directions to the best berrying spots, ask at ranger stations. (Priest Lake in Idaho, for instance, offers a brochure marking “huckleberry corridors.”)
But it’s not hard to find huckleberries on your own. The fruit needs sun to ripen, so head for areas where forest has been cut or burned away, such as the paths of old logging roads. Or just look for bears, since wherever you find bears you will likely find great huckleberries. And vice versa. Does that dampen your excitement about picking your own? If so, head to the Pie Hut in Sandpoint, Idaho, for an outstanding huckleberry pie.
A very tiny breed of cranberry is native to the Pacific Northwest, but Oregon’s cranberry industry didn’t take root until 1885, when a settler from New England planted some big East Coast berries near the seaside town of Coos Bay. Oregon is now the fourth-biggest producer of cranberries in the country, after Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
As you drive south on Highway 101 toward Bandon you can see the sunken bogs thickly planted with cranberry vines. They’re most striking in fall, when the leaves turn red, the fields are flooded for harvest, and the hollow berries, shaken from their vines, float on the water.
Oregon cranberries tend to be both redder and sweeter than those from other states, because they can stay on the vine until as late as December, allowing them to ripen fully. The berries are sweet enough that some people eat them fresh.
“They’re addictive,” says Susan Vanderpool Christiansen, owner of Chubby Girl Cheesecakes. “They’re crunchy; I like them better than apples.” When she’s not snacking on raw cranberries, she puts them in her cheesecakes, which sell at the farmers’ market in Bandon (250 First St.). You’ll also find Oregon cranberries in a ruby-colored liqueur produced by Clear Creek Distillery and in the seasonal cranberry-walnut crunch ice cream at Salt & Straw.
Berry genealogy can get complicated. In 1949, scientists at Oregon State University crossed a loganberry (the cross between a blackberry and a raspberry) with a youngberry (a hybrid of dewberry and loganberry) to create a bracingly tart and meltingly tender new berry that they named the olallieberry. Olallie means “berry” in the Chinook language, which technically makes olallieberry redundant. But the name stuck, and it’s fun to say.
Although olallies were developed in Oregon, they have thrived most luxuriantly along the Central Coast of California. In Cambria, just north of San Luis Obispo, olallieberries are everywhere. You can sleep at the Olallieberry Inn, where breakfast consists of olallieberry yogurt and pancakes with olallieberry syrup. Still in the mood for berries? Grab an olallieberry cream muffin down the street at Linn’s Restaurant and a jar of olallieberry curd to take home.
A few hours north you’ll find the Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, where you can pick your own organic olallies. The farm provides boxes and wagons to carry your harvest, but bring your own gloves. The wizards who developed the delicious olallie didn’t manage to get rid of the plant’s thorns.
To recap: the youngberry and the loganberry were crossed to create the olallieberry. Then, in 1956, the olallieberry and the Chehalem blackberry were crossed to produce Oregon’s most successful blackberry hybrid: the Marion, commonly called the marionberry. Named for the Willamette Valley county where it was first cultivated, the marionberry now accounts for more than half the blackberry hybrids grown in the state.
If you’ve eaten blackberry yogurt or drunk a blackberry smoothie, you have probably consumed a marionberry. Known as the “cabernet of berries” for its rich, winey flavor, the marionberry is terrific when fresh, but also makes a spectacular pie. (Most berries do.) It’s hard to find an Oregon bakery that doesn’t do some spin on marionberry pie. At the Dessert Tray in Beaverton, the berries are mixed with a splash of rose water. The Pie Spot, a Portland bakery that went from food truck to shop, sells individual marionberry pies topped with a brown sugar crumble, while the Bipartisan Café, also in Portland, keeps it simple by using less sugar, so the fruit’s flavor stands out. Says Bipartisan co-owner Hobie Bender, “We sell more marionberry than any other pie.”