Blueberries: the best of nature’s candy

Whether it be by taste, smell, touch or memory, the blueberry holds a special place in local Island cultures past and present and is at the centre of memories, stories, recipes and experiences.

“Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!”

— Excerpt from ‘Blueberries’ by Robert Frost

What a beautiful day for a hike. Let’s grab some forage containers, our goats, and head up into the hills!

We’ll do some berry picking and some exploring; we’ll grab a hold of this old knotted rope and work our way up the rocky pathway. Oh look, Maple is at the top already — our goats sure have much better footing than we do!

At the top, I rest and look out over our beautiful city, St. John’s. I can see the downtown core buzzing with festivities; it’s late August and the peak of tourist season, so everything is hustle bustle. Is that fiddle music I can hear coming from George Street? I sigh; what a great place to live. I turn around because what I came for is actually behind me — it’s part of what makes this place so amazing.

There they are, this time every year, growing — waves of blue splashing across every surface of the hillside. A sea of blueberries dancing in the wind, they make me catch my breath. I stop for a moment, slightly overwhelmed by the magnitude — there are just so many. Where to start, where to start? I look over to see that both of my goats have already started munching away and I decide that here is as good a spot as any. I reach down and grab the nearest, fullest one I can find. “Pop!” They burst in my mouth, each berry with its own unique tiny pocket of flavor. I am going to have to summon up all my willpower and start filling these buckets. I have a spare bag on hand to collect the blueberry leaves for tea.

Some things are timeless

Think back. Go into your past and try to pull out your first recollection of eating a blueberry. I know you have one; maybe it’s your first taste of a blueberry on a hot summer’s day, or perhaps it’s the delicious baked good that followed the picking, like Nan’s blueberry pie. Whatever your memory, it holds the proof that a blueberry is so much more than a fruit — it is an experience, it’s the smell, the adventure of discovery, it’s the memories of foraging with family and friends (goats too).

Photo by Lisa McBride.
Photo by Lisa McBride.

When I think of blueberries I also think of Newfoundland; the two go hand in hand and have a rich history on this Island.

For thousands of years Indigenous Peoples who inhabited the Island depended on the bounty of blueberries, and some Mi’kmaq still use the plant’s leaves for medicinal purposes.

Almost a thousand years ago, in Descriptio insularum Aquilonis (“Description of the Northern Islands”) in 1075, German monk Adam of Bremen wrote that “one island [was] discovered by many in that ocean, which is called Winland, for the reason that grapevines grow there by themselves, producing the best wine.”

He referred to the berries as grapevines but it is evident that what he was describing were in fact blueberries.The Norse, lacking access to grapes, considered all fermented berries ‘wine’.

The picking, processing and exporting of blueberries are intertwined with the Island’s settler culture. Between 1930 and 1967 the Job brothers on Southside (St. John’s) seasonally employed many people, mostly women, to sort through blueberries in the fall. This was mainly done during the off-season at fish processing plants. It provided an important seasonal income to many families, particularly to those women whose husbands worked in the fish plants along the Southside, Fort Amherst and the Battery.

During the First World War there was widespread support of military training, and civilians often went to watch the regiments practice. One of these training grounds was quite close to a popular blueberry patch on the Southside hills. This was such a berry picking hotspot that notices were put in thepaper to warn berry pickers the dangers associated with picking around a rifle range. The things we will do for a bucket of berries!

How many is too many?

Happiness is being surrounded by blueberries, picking them at my leisure and eating some too. Time stands still in those moments and before I know it my blueberry buckets are all full and I am forced to head home. With sticky fingers and a full heart, I grab my bucket, leash up my goats and go.

Arriving at home, I pick through and rinse all the berries, removing any stray green ones, any stalks, mashed berries and unwanted bugs. I am left with a mountain of blueberries that are ready to be processed. Here is where it starts to get exciting, where it tickles my creativity. What to do with so much bounty?

First I lay all of the most beautiful and best looking blueberries out on a tray. If these blueberries were in a contest, surely they would win first prize. I place them on a tray in the freezer and bag them after they are frozen. This keeps them from freezing into one big blueberry block, these frozen ones will be my reserves for the year.

Then I take all of the slightly mashed and over ripe berries, place them into the food processor, blend and add the mixture into a pudding bag. From here I twist the filled pudding bag and put it into our juice press, extracting as much as I can. The juice is as simple as it gets: just cold pressed blueberries and the addition of a dash of lemon juice and sugar (or maple syrup), to taste. The leftover pulp from the blueberries will be a wonderful snack for the goats and ducks.

Fermenting blueberries to make wine. Photo by Lisa McBride.
Fermenting blueberries to make wine. Photo by Lisa McBride.

Last year we made wine from our foraged blueberries and sweetened it with maple syrup made from right here in the city. For a 5 gallon carboy we used 6 litres of maple syrup, 6 litres of blueberries and one package of champagne yeast for fermentation. We sampled some of it just last week and it was truly delightful. Blueberry beer can also be made, though we have yet to try it.

Dehydrating your blueberries is another great way to enjoy them year-round. We use an oven set on the lowest temperature to dehydrate ours; you can also dry them in the sun. We can take them with us on the road as a no-mess, healthy snack food. I like to preserve them by making fruit leather too — we use this recipe but replace the honey with our own maple syrup.

Every year we make a batch of blueberry vingrette. While it is easy to ferment it yourself using a mother of vinegar, an even easier way to make blueberry vingrette is to infuse some white vinegar with crushed blueberries. After it sits for a few weeks, strain the solids out and you’ve got yourself a delicious vingrette for use in your dishes and salads.

Using whatever berries are left, I make our supply of blueberry jam. I also like to make a specialty jam as well — something a little different, like blueberry paired with fresh basil from our garden.

Baking with the blues

Blueberries can also be used to bake a huge variety of items.

Scones are a weekly favorite in our home; I like to use frozen berries to keep them from bleeding too much. We also regularly make blueberry banana muffins or blueberry cinnamon buns to enjoy with our afternoon coffee.

Blueberries can also be incorporated into baking pies, coffee cakes, donuts, tarts and syrups.

Photo by Lisa McBride.
Goldie enjoying wild blueberries. Photo by Lisa McBride.

We make our own ice cream at home too. Our goat “Maple” is still producing a surplus of milk, so this is a delicious way to go through all of our additional milk and blueberries. Sometimes we make blueberry ice cream, and other times we use fresh blueberries or blueberry syrup to dress vanilla ice cream.

Some things will never age, and some things transcend time. The blueberry is such a thing.

The taste, the smell, the feel of your fingers after picking, memories of foraging and laughing with family or friends. It’s the history and culture intertwined with a berry that creates such wonder and amazement in me.

The stories told by young and old of picking or sitting down for a feed of freshly picked blueberries with Carnation milk. It’s the magical feeling that you get when you hike along the hills and everywhere you look you see blueberries, nature’s gift to Newfoundland.

To read about and discuss blueberries, or for conversation on any other homesteading or sustainability topic relevant to Newfoundland and Labrador, come join our growing social media community on Facebook: ‘Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL’.

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