Toyon Berries: A sign of the season

I’ve been fascinated by this little berry for a few years now. Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is a California native shrub in the rose family that bears fruit during the winter months, most notably around Christmas time. They were used by the native Chumash tribes as food, but after a bit of research, I have not found any spectacular nutritional or medicinal information for them. There is one study speculating that these berries contain specific compounds that may be effective against Alzheimer’s disease.

So, what to do with them? They grow quite abundantly around here and I can tolerate a few as a quick trail snack, but their strong astringent and bland taste leaves a lot to be desired. In order to draw out the sweet, tart, and cherry like flavor and overall palatability, they need to be dried or cooked. I took some time to harvest plenty this year so that I could try out a few experiments. The web didn’t reveal many exciting recipes except a cider and a fruit leather. Neither one seemed too exciting.

toyon2First, was to clean and dry them in the dehydrator. Dried, they look quite a bit like goji berries. And the flavor is a bit reminiscent of them as well. Once dried, I took a bit and used the spice grinder to reduce them into a powder/flour. I took a taste of the powder and it was amazing! I could probably just eat it straight like that.

toyon3I tried the cider recipe I found online and… it was quite disappointing, unfortunately. Which is fine, I had other ideas.

If you know me, I have a thing for raw foods (one of these days I’ll get to writing a post about that too). When possible, I make an effort (or lack of effort??) to consume foods in their most natural and raw state. A lot of wild foods taste and are digested better when cooked so my modern theories get tested and challenged quite often. But, when I find an opportunity to create something raw from a foraged food, I get pretty excited. One of my favorite seeds to eat are chia seeds and they are quite versatile to use in a variety of foods. They combine well with fruits and sweets as well.

So…. I made some very simple raw chia + toyon bars. Potentially, you could forage the chia seeds to make this a completely wild harvested snack, but today’s chia was foraged from the local Whole Foods. Unfortunately I did not measure out my ingredients when I did this (its a bad habit I’ve gotten into). However, here’s my best guess:

toyon5

foraged toyon + chia bars

1/4 cup toyon finely ground toyon flour (from previously dried berries)
2 tablespoons chia seed
1 tablespoon water
(optional: honey or other sweetener)

Mix all ingredients well until it forms a thick, dense dough. Shape into bars and place on dehydrator sheet. Dry until desired texture. Less time and its still soft like a cookie and more time it will be a bit crunchier.

I was very pleased at the results. It was naturally sweet and a bit tangy/tart, but I felt that it didn’t need any extra sweetness. Of course, you could add pureed dates or honey to give it a natural boost of sugar, but I try to keep my sugar intake low these days.

The dried berries are also delightful when added to a granola… here is my chia and hemp seed cereal with apples, pumpkin seeds, cacao nibs and toyon berries on top. I’ll definitely be making more of the bars soon because it is so ridiculously easy. Well, compared to processing acorns which was my last project, yes, this was drastically less labor intensive.

If you are local, join me at the monthly Forager’s Gathering event on January 22 and I will have some for everyone to sample! See the facebook event page for more details.

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