Blueberries are in season again and I eagerly purchased my first pint of the year. Unfortunately, not one single berry in the package possessed the slightest bit of flavor. They all looked beautiful, each large and covered in a delicate bloom. But the plastic case they came in probably had as much flavor. These were obviously grown for shipping not for taste.
Now I know from personal experience that blueberries do or at least should have flavor. Among my favorite memories is a week of camping and canoeing with some friends in northern Quebec. Each night we would encamp on an island in the middle of a series of lakes and recuperate from a long day of paddling and portaging. Food prepared over a campfire proves particularly desirable under such conditions. Our trip corresponded to blueberry season and the woods were filled with ripe berries. We ate them plain, in pancakes, in oatmeal, etc. And those berries dripped with luscious flavor and sweetness. The opposite of our current store-bought versions.
For millennia, Native Americans ate blueberries, the fruit of an indigenous shrub — fresh and, out of season, dried. Powdered dried berries were rubbed onto meat as a seasoning or cooked with cornmeal to make a pudding called sautauthig. Native Americans introduced these American berries, which resemble the European bilberry, to the Pilgrims, who quickly incorporated them into their diet. Nevertheless, blueberries were not raised commercially until the twentieth century. Then in 1913, after years of searching wild bushes for the one that yielded the biggest and best blueberries, Elizabeth White of Whitesbog, New Jersey found her objective, resulting in the first cultivated blueberry. Soon White’s bushes were being sold nationwide, a proliferation of hybrids began, and this all-American berry commenced a larger role in American baking. Blueberries are incredibly versatile, commonly used in muffins, fritters, pancakes, pies, cobblers, and cakes.
Native blueberries grow wild throughout New England. A five-parted crown on the top of the berry indicates that it is edible. In New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, the bushes grow relatively tall, up to fifteen feet in height, allowing people to pick standing upright. In Maine, however, the principal variety is a low-bush. The low-bush berries are smaller than the plumper ones in the rest of New England.
High-bush varieties, constituting more than 65 percent of the total blueberry crop, are grown throughout the northern United States and Canada. Low-bush varieties, sometimes mislabeled as huckleberries, are generally smaller and sweeter than other blueberries and, except for wild ones, are generally only available processed. The true huckleberry, also called gopherberry, is a close relative of the blueberry, but less sweet, smaller, darker blue, and has ten seeds, as opposed to the blueberry, which has numerous tinier seeds.
Choose plump, firm berries with a powdery indigo color. A dusty bloom indicates freshness. Avoid reddish (underripe) or wrinkled berries. Size of the berries is not an indication of quality.
But it is just sad that so much of American fruit, especially blueberries, are so blah.