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Celebrating huckleberries in Montana

Celebrating huckleberries in Montana
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HELENA — Right now is a great time to get out in the mountains to find huckleberries.

It doesn’t matter if you get them from the side of a mountain, or from the gas station, the purple berries are generally beloved in Montana. We love them so much we made them our state fruit this legislative session.

But why do we like them so much?

“This is where we're at, this is what we eat and this is who we are," Chris Abrego, the man behind the Copperline in Helena and Hardware Café in Montana City told MTN.

Both locations boast a robust menu featuring huckleberries in items like sauces and Abrego’s favorite the milkshake. Which they make a ton of.

The berries show up in so many recipes and foods across the state, not just because they are good to eat, but because they are Montanan. Abrego, like many cooks, is taking that connection and trying to develop a regional flavor and technique with his food.

“What I love about huckleberries is that they’re a really well-balanced berry," said Abrego. "They are not always overpowering sweet, they got just a little bit of acidity. They are real nice to add into things when you want to keep things kind of light but super full of flavor.”

Abrego and his staff don’t stop there though. His quest to cook Montana style is leading him to try and perfect a cooking discipline that aims be a Montana staple, but is actually trickier than you think.

“My first thought when I think of the pacific northwest, and western Montana and the mountain regions is, you know, we’re out here breaking land, just being really close to the earth," said Abrego. "And you’d think barbecue being primarily wood cooking method we would have more barbecue up here."

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Abrego says a big reason for that is the trees we have in Montana compared to what is used as fuel for barbecue pits.

"They got the hickory, the oak wood, all that kind of stuff. While up here, we have lots and lots of trees and you think we’d be making use of them and smoking meats, the cedar and the pine trees have sap in the wood and the smoke carries a lot of that sap with it and ends up with kind of a bitter, acrid flavor on the meat," explained Abrego. "So what I’ve had to do was source cherry wood from the Flathead and go even further west to the Yackima Valley in Washington."

For you at-home cooks with a jar of freshly picked huckleberries in the kitchen, Abrego says the "Big Sky" is the limit for using the state’s official fruit.

"I would think that maybe throwing them in with some fish or a seafood stew might be a little far but, I don’t know," Chris said. "My mind is always being blown with new things all the time and it’s hard for me, it is really hard for me to create absolute rules for anything really lately just because the world’s always changing and things are always changing, people are always changing my mind all the time.”