Oregon’s farmlands boast some of the most succulent berries in the country. Farmers Markets are a heavenly display of color and aroma beginning in May through September. U-pick farms brim with urbanites and families eager to connect with their food. But less than an hour from Portland, there is a different type of berry heaven.
In the wild forests of the coastal mountain range, the natural world sets out a berry smorgasbord for its creatures. Starting with tiny wild strawberries, and ending with strands of velvety salal berries, the forest fills the belly of its inhabitants. These berries are rarely seen in the commercial market due to difficult harvest and their fragile nature. Their harvest is a perfect opportunity to spend the day in the woods picking berries, and to take your cocktail to the forest.
This August, I did just that. Six women, strangers to each other, bravely joined me on a wild berry hunt and cocktail party. Amidst the small talk, we piled into a two car caravan, up a forestry road to a sun dappled clearing. These are not the deep woods, they are the regenerating forest that was logged years ago. Some trees still stand, anchoring the soil, and the next generation of conifers are growing beneath them. The understory is lush and productive with towering salmonberries here, a grove of thimbleberries there, and opportunistic red huckleberries growing out of a decaying stump flooded by a sea of salal. Underneath all of it weaves the tiny trailing blackberry, Oregon’s native blackberry.
We spent some time learning about identification, uses, and plant habits, of the berries we were about to gather. As we began our walk along the forest roads the small talk led to real conversations. The forest roads are rarely used, and are safe paths to navigate the woods so that our footsteps don’t damage any plants or disturb the residents. It only took a few steps for someone to spot a red huckleberry, then someone would hoot their delight when they identified the wide soft leaves of the thimbleberry and the accompanying crimson berry. The Blackcap’s upright and sparse vegetation make them easy to drive past, but they were spotted on our slow ramble and they were greeted excitedly. We heard the promise of the winding road, which says that just around the corner the berries get a little more sun, or a little more rain, and a few more steps will unveil the perfectly ripe berry.
As the ladies continued picking, I started setting up our cocktail party in the forest. Our table was set, the glasses poised, and the berry pickers returned together with their prize. They washed them and got to work preparing the wild bites. Tart red huckleberries and wood sorrel garnished the egg salad canapés, black cap raspberries, thimble berries, and trailing blackberries filled our wild berry tart with honey cream, and Salal berry jam joined a bloomy goat cheese with homemade porcini crackers.
I got started mixing the cocktails of the day: “Blackberry Tree”, a shaken wild blackberry and Verstovia Spruce Tip Vodka sour, and “Salal Martinez”, a stirred bittersweet sipper with Cold Tree Gin, Salal Berry Liqueur, and sweet vermouth with the cacao bitters from Portland Bitters Project.
We paused our giddy mood and stood among the wildflowers under the cathedral of Douglas firs. We raised our glasses and made a toast to the day. The Crystal rang, resounding with the magic of the temporal. We all left the forest knowing we are connected, to each other and to those woods.
Until our next adventure, you can take your cocktail to the forest with these recipes:
1 oz Cold Tree Gin
1/2 oz Salal Berry liqueur
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
1 dash PBP Cacao bitters
Stir with ice, strain
~Blackberry Tree Sour~
1 oz Verstovia Spruce Tip Vodka
1/2 oz wild blackberry simple syrup
1/2 oz lime juice
Shake with ice, strain
Photos by Sami Sattva with lamdalion.com