THE WAY WE EAT; On Blueberry Hill

THE WAY WE EAT; On Blueberry Hill

Adapted from an article published in The New York Times: August 17, 2008

Up on the mountain behind my house, the wild blueberries are ripe and prolific. It’s public land, part of the Maine state-park system, so the berries are free for the picking.

In a half-hour or so, if I’m lucky, I can fill a tin cup with enough berries for breakfast, mixed into muffins or pancakes or, best of all, on their own with a smidgen of sugar and a dollop of yogurt.

These are Maine wild or low-bush blueberries, a very special breed. Vaccinium angustifolium are tiny and sweet, with a tartly resinous edge missing from the cultivated high-bush berries of other regions. The color is deep blue, sometimes lightly dusted with white — ”like pieces of the sky,” our grandmothers told us.

My friends Gwen and Dick Brodis don’t see blueberries in the same romantic light. For them, blueberry season means hard work and long hours, but it’s a welcome addition to the income of their 800-acre farm. The Brodises live upcountry in the town of Hope, about 10 miles from the coast, where they maintain 180 acres in wild blueberries on land that has been in Gwen’s family for uncountable generations. ”I used to think it was six or seven,” she told me recently, ”but now I think it’s a lot more.” Even if her conservative estimate is true, that means her forebears began farming in Hope around the time of the Revolution.

Most likely it was Native Americans who taught Europeans like Gwen’s ancestors to harvest blueberries. Indians, early records say, gathered berries and dried them for winter. They probably cultivated them just as they’re cultivated now (or were until recently), burning the fields every other spring to cut back the crop and encourage new growth. Nowadays, if you go Down East to the vast blueberry barrens of Washington County, around the towns of Milbridge, Cherryfield, Addison and Jonesboro, you’ll find farmers mechanically pruning the acreage by flailing until each craggy little bush is but an inch and a half high. But the Brodises’ land is too uneven and rocky for that, so they still burn many of the fallow fields in April.

Calling these ”wild” blueberries is actually no more accurate than calling Maine lobster ”wild.” With both, the product in question emerges from the wild and reproduces in the wild, but the guiding hand of humans coaxes the wild stock to fruition and proliferation. Pruning the bushes, spraying with a pre-emergent herbicide and adding fertilizer are all practices Maine blueberry farmers follow. Every other year the fields are left fallow. (Of the Brodises’ 180 acres, only 90 will be harvested this year, the rest in 2009.) Truly organic cultivation is difficult, growers agree, but the applications are generally added only to fallow fields, meaning this year’s crop is 12 to 18 months past the application date safe for human consumption if somewhat questionable for the environment.

What makes Maine wild blueberries so special is partly their delicately complex flavor and partly a high antioxidant content one of the highest of all fruits and vegetables, according to a number of peer-reviewed publications. What makes for this complexity, according to Dave Yarborough, a blueberry specialist at the University of Maine in Orono, is the genetic diversity of the wild stock. ”A wild-blueberry barren consists of thousands of genetically diverse plants,” he explained to me. ”Because of the diversity, they ripen at different times. So you get a certain amount of overripe and underripe fruit along with fruit that’s perfectly mature, and this adds to the complexity.”

Most of the wild blueberries harvested in Maine are frozen, although here in the midst of harvest we wouldn’t dream of using anything but fresh fruit, preferably warmed by the sun and gathered by hand. I asked Yarborough if the antioxidant content is affected by cooking. ”It is a little,” he said, ”but that’s just a good excuse for two pieces of pie.”

North Haven Wild-Blueberry Tart

Some years ago, a Swedish woman named Lotta spent time on the Penobscot Bay island of North Haven. This recipe is adapted from the one she left behind, which has become a tradition among some island families.

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Salt
  • Dash of cinnamon
  • * cup flour
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped blanched almonds
  • 3 1/2 cups fresh wild blueberries (see note)
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
  • Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (optional)

1. Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and 1/3 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla, a pinch of salt and the cinnamon. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour, rolled oats and almonds. Shape into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Press the chilled dough into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Wrap in plastic and freeze for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Transfer the tart pan directly from the freezer to the oven and bake until the crust is golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and using paper towels to protect your hands, gently press the hot crust, which will have risen a bit, back into the pan. Cool slightly on a wire rack before adding the berry filling.

3. Rinse the blueberries, shake them dry in a colander and transfer them to a large bowl. In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, the lemon zest and a pinch of salt. Stir it and the lemon juice into the berries, bruising the berries slightly with a fork. Transfer the berry mixture to the crust and distribute the berries evenly. Bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

4. Cool completely on a rack. Sprinkle with the confectioners’ sugar and, if you choose, serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Serves 6 to 8.

NOTE: Do not use frozen blueberries. Domestic blueberries may be substituted for wild.

North Haven Wild-Blueberry Tart

  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons flour, plus more for flouring the pan
  • 1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • * cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
  • 2 tablespoons whole or nonfat plain yogurt
  • 1/3 cup whole or nonfat milk
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen low- bush, wild blueberries (see note)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square cake pan with butter. Dust the pan with flour, shaking out excess. Set the pan in the freezer.

2. On a baking sheet, roast the almonds in the oven until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Let cool and pulse them to a coarse grit in a food processor. Add 1 cup of the flour, the baking powder and sea salt and continue processing to a fine grit.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and 3/4 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy, stopping to scrape the sides. Beat in the egg, vanilla and orange zest. Stir the yogurt into the milk and then beat it into the batter.

4. Fold the flour mixture into the batter until combined. Toss blueberries with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons flour and fold them into the batter.

5. Transfer the batter to the chilled pan. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon sugar on top. Bake in the oven until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool on a cake rack. Serves 8. Adapted from Nancy Harmon Jenkins.

NOTE: Wyman’s frozen wild blueberries are available at most Whole Foods Markets and health-food stores. When using frozen blueberries, do not let them thaw.

North Haven Wild-Blueberry Fish

  • 1 cup dry-style blueberry wine (see note)
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest, chopped
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • * cup fresh or frozen low bush, wild blueberries
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
  • Sea salt
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 4 6-ounce skin-on fillets fish, like striped bass, mahi mahi or blue fish
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons *-inch cut fresh chives
  • 1 lemon, quartered (optional)

1. Prepare a grill to very hot. Meanwhile, in a non-reactive skillet, bring the blueberry wine, vinegar, shallots, lemon zest and juice and 1/4 cup of the blueberries to a boil. Lower to a simmer and reduce the sauce to about 1/4 cup.

2. Over medium heat, vigorously whisk in the butter, a tablespoon at a time, to make a smooth emulsion. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing on the solids. Season with sea salt and a pinch of cayenne. Keep warm.

3. Rub a little oil over the fish, then season with salt and pepper. Grill until opaque, 5 to 8 minutes per side. Just before serving, swirl the remaining 1/2 cup of blueberries and the chives into the buerre bleu. Serve over the fish. Serves 4. Adapted from Sam Hayward, the chef of Fore Street in Portland, Maine.

Note: Maine blueberry wine is difficult to find outside of Maine due to restrictions. A Chianti or sangiovese wine can be substituted for blueberry wine. To impart more blueberry flavor into the wine, heat 1/2 cup of extra wild blueberries in a dry skillet until their skins start to burst. Transfer the berries and the wine to a blender and puree until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve, then measure out 1 cup of wine.

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