The Bliss of Summer Comes in the Taste of a Tiny Wild Berry
Walk into any New England restaurant during the month of August and you are bound to see one very particular food featured. A sweet delicacy like no other, it simply shouts, “Summer is here!” This is New England, so you might think we’re talking about lobsters, but no, we’re talking about Wild Blueberries, which are available year round in the frozen section of supermarkets across America. But once a year – in late July and August – this sweet little magnificent berry is available fresh!
Whatever you do, if you are in New England, DO NOT MISS OUT on the experience of tasting a mouthful of fresh Wild Blueberries. They are simply delectable, delicious, nutritious, and if you picked them yourself, like our friend Sal, from Robert McCloskey’s timeless book, Blueberries for Sal, the memory will last a lifetime.
Starting around July 20th and for six cherished weeks of the summer, you can purchase Wild Blueberries at a variety of farm stands, farmers markets, restaurants, and grocery stores (Hannaford, Shaw’s, Whole Foods) across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. You can also forage them for yourself on the mountaintops and fields of these same states and even into Quebec and Eastern Canada.
Wild Blueberries are distinct and easy to recognize because unlike the big cultivated berries, these berries are complex in flavor; they range in color from dark to light blue; and they are small – so small in fact that I am told you can fit 1,000 Wild Blueberries into a single pint.
“Our culture has grown accustomed to eating fresh foods anytime of the year, like watermelon in January,” said Lynn Thurston, owner of Blue Sky Produce in Phillips, Maine. “The fact that our fresh Wild Blueberries are available just a few weeks of the year makes them really, truly special.”
Thurston, who helps growers sell their fresh berries to markets across New England, says the phenomenon is akin to ice cream stands, which are open only for a few precious months of summer and mustn’t be missed. Of course, like ice cream, Wild Blueberries are available year round in the freezer section. But once a year, and only once a year, they can and should be enjoyed fresh!
Farm to Table Movement
There was a time when finding local fresh Wild Blueberries in New England was actually quite difficult, Thurston explains. Before the local food movement took off, she remembers visiting local Maine grocery stores during the summer and the only fresh blueberries available were the cultivated ones. “I remember being really disappointed and thinking this was an opportunity that could be seized by local growers,” she says. So Thurston and other intrepid souls set off to develop markets for six weeks of fresh Wild Blueberries.
Today, with a strong farm-to-table movement and a higher consciousness around eating local, the fresh Wild Blueberry has a place at the table each year and is part of a sequence of delicious seasonal foods that begins in the spring with fiddleheads, asparagus, and greens, moves through cucumbers, green beans, kohlrabi, and tomatoes, and culminates in the fall with apples, parsnips, potatoes, and squash.
“When August comes around, it’s my favorite food season,” laughs Thurston. “It’s when we can get fresh Wild Blueberries, cheap lobster, and local corn on the cob!”
Thurston explains that in her experience and through her travels, she has encountered a lot of people who are simply not aware of the magic of Wild Blueberries: how they have grown wild on the barrens of eastern Maine and Canada for thousand of years; they have never been genetically modified or altered by man in any way; they are the only native berry that is commercially harvested (native cranberries have been hybridized); and with twice the antioxidants of regular blueberries they provide skyrocketing nutritional value. “They are truly a gift of nature,” she proclaims.
Keeping it Small and Local
Thurston explains that it took time and lot of effort on the part of growers to develop a market for fresh Wild Blueberries. The local food movement with the resurgence of farmers markets and farm stands helped a lot, but there were still challenges. The weather had to cooperate and the little fresh berries had to be treated with utmost care.
Thurston persevered. “I’m a great supporter of the Wild Blueberry industry in Maine; 99 percent of the Wild Blueberry crop is frozen at harvest and shipped to markets around the world,” she says, “and our growers in Maine depend on the success of the industry as a whole.” But Thurston emphasizes the importance of those fleeting weeks of summer.
People often have their first taste of Wild as a fresh berry—either while hiking, canoeing or traveling through New England during the summer. “The experience creates a memory that holds dear to their hearts,” says Thurston. Frozen Wild Blueberries are wildly popular for the remainder of the year, she theorizes, because they give us a chance to recall – and taste – the bliss of summer.