The Inconvenient, Illusory Salmonberry
Most of us in the Pacific Northwest don’t know what salmonberries are. Sadly, many of those who do know them either pass them off as inedible or don’t consider their flavor interesting enough to pick them. One will never see them in the markets. Consumer apathy toward them, coupled with their high perishability and low shelf life, make them unable to ever be packed and sold. The only way one will ever eat the salmonberry is through foraging and sharing.
Yes, salmonberries are an illusion. Their meaty size, comparable to the Himalayan blackberry, tricks us into believing that they will burst with juicy nectar. Instead, they possess a little, tender white pit in their center. When picked, often the pit falls out, leaving one with a hollow and sometimes flat berry. Popping it into the mouth produces different reactions. The flavor of the salmonberry, like its color, is varied. This is a result of the comprehensive cloning of which salmonberries are capable. When foraging for them, it is important to pick from many different bushes, as the clones may create a sweeter berry than the parent. Unfortunately, an inconsistent flavor is yet another point against the marketing possibilities of salmonberries.
The salmonberry could be domesticated and cultivated for sweetness. Attempts have been made to cross it with the raspberry. Two types resulted from these experiments: berries resembling salmonberries and berries resembling raspberries. Both were disappointing. Either flavor was lost or production was lost. Where the blackberry brambles produce pounds, the salmonberry shrubs produce ounces. As a crop, they are only favorable to farmers who would plant them on the edge of their fields as either protection from or distraction to deer. Gardeners who favor native planting may put some into their plots, too. They would need large plots if they desired what, in a place a tenth the size, they could obtain from a raspberry bush. Overall, the primary reason that salmonberries are planted these days is because of their bright, magenta flowers, on which rufous hummingbirds happily feed.
There is a strong and valid argument against the salmonberry as food. But I disagree. The salmonberry is merely misunderstood.
A Brief Culinary History of the Salmonberry
The salmonberry has been a food source for millennia, even if one cookbook from 1933 states that they are not worth preserving. In Canada, there is a recipe that pairs it with grouse. Contemporary foragers have published recipes for jams and pies. But more extensive is the Native American use of the salmonberry.
They are one of the earliest, and perhaps the earliest, berry to ripen in the spring. Native people, having collected enough of them, would hold feasts featuring the harvested fruit. They were often paired with dried salmon spawn or oolichan grease, and later in the spring with fresh salmon. Never were they paired with mussels, susceptible to toxicity in the warmer months, for fear of sickness.
Salmonberries were preserved as jams and jellies, as they still are today. This remains the primary method of preserving salmonberries. The high water content in the berries has made drying them unfavorable among many people. However, the Cowlitz and Green River either set them in the sun or over a fire and, keeping them in baskets, saved dried salmonberries until the next winter. The Puyallup dried their salmonberries with black raspberries. Using a different type of preservation, the Haisla and Hanaksiala made wine from the berries.
Besides the berry, the young shoots are also edible. When peeled and eaten raw, they are as sweet as candy. They can also be steamed. The astringent parts of the plant, and certainly the sweet shoots, may have been a welcome taste to an overwintered people filled with oily herring.
Salmonberries have other uses too. The leaves were chewed and used to treat burns, while the bark was pounded by the Makah to treat toothaches or to reduce the pain in a festering wound. The Quileute brewed tea, by boiling the bark in sea water, to ease labor pains. Branches with a pith–the spongy substance inside the stalk–were turned into smoking pipes. The same wood was used, in conjunction with elderberry wood, during whaling.
The Quileute calendar named two of its 13 “moons” or months after the salmonberry, coinciding with the time of year when the shoots and berries began to appear.
The plants, often growing on wet banks, help in preventing erosion.
So prized were salmonberry patches among Native people of the Pacific Northwest that individuals and families owned them. The virtuous properties of the salmonberry were well-known in this land for thousands of years. Now, today, they are appreciated by very few: the occasional hiker, the adventurous gardener, the ecologist, the forager and the simply curious.
The Culinary Benefits of the Salmonberry
It is very convenient to dismiss the salmonberry as anachronistic or unnecessary. I do not disagree entirely with that. After all, the salmonberry should not replace the blackberry or raspberry in sweetness or juiciness. But neither should it be used exclusively for jams and pies by the very few. I propose that it should be added to the repertoire of the Pacific Northwest ingredients list.
The salmonberry, in fact, possesses qualities that we do not see otherwise, and it is these qualities that make it so valuable to chefs and foodies.
Hollowness: No other berry, so far as I can tell, has the chamber that the salmonberry has. It is begging to be stuffed.
Dryness: Handling a blackberry or raspberry can become messy. The salmonberry, while juicy, has a durable skin around the flesh. When they’re fresh (no more than 2 days off the shrub), and before they begin to break down, they can be sliced open, cut apart or separated with ease, meanwhile preserving their texture and form.
Tartness: Sweetening anything is simple. But adding natural tartness to a flavor is less simple. The citrus fruits each have unique flavors, some sweeter than others, that impart their flavors sometimes too strongly with paired foods. Of course, there are other sources of sour, such as vinegars, rhubarb, unripe fruit, sorrel, just to name a few. But nothing compares to the suave and polite tartness of the salmonberry.
Colors: Sometimes they are speckled, and sometimes they are solid orange or crimson or yellow or red. They are a sunset, a fire, a salmon roe, autumnal and erupting. There is no other fruit or vegetable like them. Those who recognize salmonberries will never forget them. For the eyes, they are a treat to behold. In nature, they are a warm welcome to passersby, an ephemeral refuge from the many tones of green and brown that surround them; so, too, are they an exciting addition to a white plate or dish. The unique properties of the salmonberry force us to be creative with it.
Exclusivity: Three factors prevent the salmonberry from being available year-round to everybody everywhere: its brief season (the month of June, more or less), its geographical isolation, and its scarcity. Thus the salmonberry is an exclusive and, I hope, prized food in the spring. Whereas other berries can be imported from another hemisphere, the consumer of the salmonberry must rely on being in the right place at the right time. For the chef who wants to use exclusive foods the salmonberry is a worthy option.
The Salmonberry in the Modern Kitchen
It would not be fair of me to dribble on about the salmonberry without providing but a few things I have learned while using it in my own kitchen.
Forget what anyone tells you. The salmonberry is not as perishable as the internet warns. True, they don’t hold up like strawberries or raspberries or blackberries, but they will keep fresh in your fridge for a few days after picking them. Surface area is key. They like their space. After all, they’re from the Pacific Northwest.
To store salmonberries, lay them flat in a wide container. You can stack them three or four layers high, but anything more may cause a meltdown at the bottom. Place a damp paper towel over them. Do not let them sit in any water. They will get mushy. But do run water through them to rinse them and keep them hydrated.
Once the salmonberries begin to get a tint of brown, it is time to either cook them or freeze them. Cooking them into a jam is a simple way to preserve them. You can sweeten them up too. They don’t seem to have much pectin, so you may consider adding some more. Also, they cook down more slowly than raspberries or blackberries. For something quicker, you can throw some sugar onto them. This will lengthen their life by a day or two. They are stubborn sometimes. Like I said: Pacific Northwest.
I prefer to freeze the ones that get old. To freeze salmonberries, lay them flat on a baking sheet or dinner plate. Place it in the freezer. Once they are frozen, scrape them off with your hand and put them into a storage container. So simple. They retain their color and taste well into the autumn.
Do not dry salmonberries. At least, not by themselves. The Pacific Northwest tribes knew what they were doing. Drying them produces sour niblets that get stuck in your teeth. I have dried them with sugar and they taste like raisins that get stuck in your teeth. In my opinion, there are better ways to preserve salmonberries.
As for using salmonberries in cooking, by all means, do it. They add a very subtle and interesting tartness to things. But beware of the seeds. I generally strain them out. They seem to have a good bit of sour in them, but they get caught so easily in the molars.
The Salmonberry as Identity
Everything that I have mentioned can be reduced to one need in the Pacific Northwest culinary world: identity.
In the last few generations, we have established ourselves–thanks to the array of immigration that continues to occur–as a land of many gastronomic influences. We have arrangements from every continent except Antarctica. Each year the list of these influences, of cultures and countries from these continents, expands. The streets of Seattle, and now surrounding towns, including the Olympic Peninsula, offer Mexican cuisine next door to Vietnamese cuisine, not far from French, Italian or Thai cuisine. We are very fortunate to have such an offering.
While wild fish and shellfish have been features on menus for generations, in recent years, with the rising popularity of the local foods movement, and the interest in native food, restaurants have begun to introduce more wild plants. For example, Jason Stoneburner, executive chef at Bastille restaurant in Ballard, served dry-cured Chinook salmon with wild leek vinaigrette, blanched sea beans and fresh, wild watercress. The crew over at Foraged & Found Edibles, who run a stand at a few of the farmers markets in Seattle, continue to expand their selection at both commercial and consumer levels.
Now is the time for us to harvest all of our resources, to create a unique cuisine that brings together all of these national and international influences, as well as our own traditional influences here. But to do this, we have to be creative. We have to scrutinize our contemporary knowledge of food. We have to keep our minds active and open to new possibilities, ancient techniques and contradictory ideas. We have to ask ourselves, Why can’t we do that?
Pioneerism. It is this spirit that we must consider when shaping our culinary identity here. For me, the salmonberry–and I am not saying that anyone should experience the same effect with it–represents that spirit. There are so many forces working against using the salmonberry in the kitchen; I have listed most of them already. But with a bit of focus and thoughtfulness, the salmonberry can become something special. It forces us to reconsider our convictions of food, it forces us to incorporate international cooking methods, it forces our creative and pioneering spirit to heighten its presence to magical.
The salmonberry, as a symbol of this, will disappear. It is, after all, only a plant. It will soon be followed by tastier berries, like thimbleberries, serviceberries, huckleberries, black raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries. Those too will disintegrate and be followed by the very sour Oregon grape and salal berries. Then, come winter, we will have the inedible snowberries, taunting us, laughing at us for being duped yet another year by our own limited conceptions and ignorance. How we will feel then?