Fall: Berry Time

Fall: Berry Time

It’s hard to believe that fall is already here in Southeast Alaska, considering the stretch of sunny weeks we’ve had leading into it. But fall is really here, and with it comes new tastes. Fall flavor doesn’t always mean pumpkin (don’t get it twisted, we do love us some pumpkin) – in Alaska, it usually means bright berries of all kinds. Up here, the shift of seasons from summer to fall means a flurry of activity: fishing, hunting, foraging, canning… just like Alaska’s animals, we do our best to both stock up and fatten up for the long winter nights ahead.

After growing up in Southeast Alaska, I’m used to coming out full force every berry season, filling gallon Ziploc bags, buckets and (obviously) my belly I go. Berry picking is probably my favorite harvest activity, since I’m in constant pursuit of fulfilling millennial instant gratification syndrome – I can usually fill my bucket with about an hour of steady picking, which is so satisfying. Plus, its relatively stationary nature means that berry picking is the perfect beer drinking activity. Seriously, no downside.

This Labor Day I ventured out onto a low hillside near my house to pick blueberries with some friends in the unexpected, but much appreciated early fall sun.  Hauling a twelve pack of Cranberry Tart up a steep trail wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but obviously so worth it. Thankfully, we only hiked for about 15 minutes before hitting the berry mother lode.

We found a central place to set our packs (and beer…) and dispersed throughout the brush with buckets and bags. Every blueberry bush is a little bit different – some are heavy with huge berries, but not very many of them; others, smaller sized berries but a lot of them… and the best bushes, of course, are jam-packed with big blueberries the size of grapes. This time of year, there are a mixture of all three, and also bushes that have already been picked over by eager early-season berry hunters. In just over an hour, fueled by two or three Cranberry Tarts, I picked about a gallon of blueberries – a full Ziplock full, the perfect amount for a blueberry pie (and then some). And that’s not counting the perfectly, deliciously ripe, irresistible ones that, uh, didn’t quite make it into my bag.

Like highly classified halibut holes and moose hollows, Alaska’s best berry spots are often kept secret between family members and friends, revealed only to their closest confidants, or when trying to impress a potential partner (hey, if that’s your game…). So sorry, but no, no way, not happening, I’m not going to tell you my best berry spots. What I will tell you is that most of Alaska’s popular berries, including blueberries and high bush cranberries, grow best in acidic, rocky soil on the lower slopes of mountains, and on hillsides. Here’s a freebie: Juneau’s commonly accepted, publicly known best berry spot is the slopes of Eaglecrest Ski Area.

So what’s next, once you’ve got purple hands and tongues and a mountain of berries? Blueberry pie, obviously. This recipe is a Juneau favorite, adapted from the Fiddlehead Cookbook:

Wild Alaskan Blueberry Pie

Start with an unbaked, double 9-inch pie crust (I like this one, but do you – or buy at the store to save time, I won’t tell!).

– 4 cups wild blueberries, soaked in salt water for 1/2 hour, cleaned, rinsed, and drained
– 1 cup granulated sugar
– 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
– 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
– 1-2 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon juice, to taste (not included in the Fiddlehead recipe, so feel free to leave it out, but I think it adds a little brightness, personally)

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F and place race in center of oven. Place a rack immediately below the center and set a foil-lined cookie sheet on it to catch any drips from the pie.
  2. To prepare filling: In a large mixing bowl, combin blueberries, sugar, flour, and cloves (along with optional lemon juice). When they are evenly mixed pour into unbaked pie shell.
  3. Dampen edge of shell with a littl ewater all the way around pie. Gently fold top crust in half and transfer it to pie. Unfold and center dough on pie. Trim edges to match bottom layer.
  4. Folding two layers under, pinch together to create a tightly sealed, attractive edge to pie. Using a fork or tip of a small knife, make a pattern of small holes or slits in top of pie. Place in center of oven and bake at 425 degrees F for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees F and bake for 30 minutes, until juices are bubbling out of center.
  5. Remove from oven, and let cool for as long as you can stand it.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or an Alaskan Cranberry Tart. Preferably all three.