Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Celebrate the Wild Blueberry!

Driving Home the Mystique of the Season



Recently, the Huffington Post shared their "berry busting myths" in an effort to set straight those un-indoctrinated into the berry vocabulary.

One of these myths concerns size: big berries are juicier.

Of course, it's part of the long-held fiction that bigger is better. And there's really no better time to be reminded about the mystique of the small wild blueberry and its inscrutable attraction – especially for those who live in areas of the country where it's just about to flourish.

The Huff debunks this erroneous line of thinking by explaining that jumbo berries are often not big on flavor. In fact, the article states, the congregation of taste – and of nutrients – is in the skin. So, the higher the skin-to-pulp ratio, the better the taste and the bigger the health benefits. It’s the case with many berries, but the difference is most startling when it comes to wild blueberries.

They summarize it this way: "Tiny wild blueberries, for example, are far more flavorful than larger ones and can be bought frozen year round." Don't we know it! In areas of Maine and Canada the size myth is just one more laughable oddity that those in the outside world may be slow to grasp.

The Wild Blueberry Book – Learning the Language of Blue

The myth of "bigger is juicier" is one that a true berry aficionado shouldn't be buying into. But not everyone, especially those who don't live where wild blueberries grow, understand the mystique of the local berries. Luckily, there's help.

As Virginia M. Wright points out in The Wild Blueberry Book, those unfamiliar with the wild blueberry might think they are looking at "baby" berries. But those tiny fruits are not immature berries. Wild blueberries found only in Maine and Canada have many characteristic differences when compared to highbush, cultivated berries found in other parts of the country. Being compact is just one of them.

Wright, a Senior Editor at Down East Magazine, presents a comprehensive primer of blueberry knowledge in her book, and it is a real charm. It provides an insider look from farmers and growers to scientists and festival workers. The mock monthly planner from a Midcoast Maine blueberry farmer is an appealing addition; it invites us in on a process that includes "putting on bees" and using a blower oil burner to throw flames on the fields during their burn cycle. It's a reminder that these harvesting chores that provide year-round consumption are truly the responsibility of individuals.

In the end, it’s all about eating these fab fruits, so Wright generously includes recipes from the best: a prize-winning blueberry salsa, Blueberry Spice Whoopie Pies, a first-place winner in the Machias Wild Blueberry Cooking Contest, and Baked Stuffed Lobster, a show-stealing prize-winner that uses blueberries and crab meat in the stuffing.

Taste of the Season

Another interesting part of the wild personality of the indigenous blueberry is the variations of taste. As Wright says, one may be sweet, the other tart, one citrusy, one grapey. Individually, they offer a remarkable array of distinctions, while together the effect is a fusion of tart and sweet, strong and subtle, that creates a complex taste experience.

As Wright explains, the variations are a result of the different varieties that grow side by side. "One acre of wild blueberries typically contains well over one hundred varieties of the berry, each one as genetically distinct from the other as a McIntosh apple is from a Delicious," she states in the book. This genetic diversity is responsible for the berry's mysterious one-of-a-kind flavor and provides the mystique that simply can't be captured in other parts of the world.

Maine produces about a third of the commercial blueberry harvest, and Washington County yields 65% of Maine's total crop. Mid-summer is a perfect time to be in the towns that make up Down East Maine because of the buzz of blueberry anticipation. In June and July, the barrens are done showing off their blazing red color, and the wash of blue has yet to appear. It's an expectant time for harvesters, who are concerned mostly with fertilizing fields and making preparations by transporting equipment onto the land. Small farmers are at work there, and the large blueberry processors like Jasper Wyman & Sons are also an area presence.

Some farmers have rakers who travel to work the fields by hand, while larger commercial farmers opt for machine harvesting. (Find out more about the harvesting process.) Travel in this part of the state, and you'll always find lodging areas serving blueberry juice as well as blueberry-themed meals, and local restaurants will be filled with residents associated with blueberries in some capacity, whether it's as part of a family farm, as a tractor owner, or as a plant worker from one of the larger local companies.

Down East: Abuzz with Berries

Wild About Health's recent travels along the coast to Down East Maine was an extravaganza of blueberry value-adds and stretched-out barrens. It was all punctuated in hyperbolic fashion by Wild Blueberry Land, reinforcing the idea that Down East Maine is truly Wild Blueberry country. It's no wonder Wright covers this landmark in her book, and lets us in on its quirky beginnings.

Built in 2000, Wild Blueberry Land began as Marie Emerson's dream. Emerson is a chef and wife of farmer and blueberry expert Dell Emerson, and she wanted to replace a stream of changing businesses that occupied a section of Route 1 in Columbia Falls with giant blueberry. And that's what she did.

Wild Blueberry Land in Columbia Falls, Maine as seen from Route 1 
The blue geodesic dome makes any passerby want to pull over to gawk or nosh. It's ultimately a bakery inside of a theme-park, complete with miniature golf course and an inside teeming with pies, cookies, and blueberry-themed tchotchkes and jewelry. It’s weird, it's big and blue, and it's there to fill any gaps in your wild blueberry education if you are in need. Consider it part of the culture of the tiny, uniquely delicious berry that is truly a Maine obsession!

Celebrate blueberries! 

Plan your trip to wild blueberry country to see it all first hand. Part of the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival, which takes place this year on August 20 & 21, includes Blueberry Farm Tours. The festival draws thousands who come to experience the food, music, pie-eating contests, and unabashed fun.




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