Blueberries

(or Why We’re Wild about Blueberries)

Blueberry Steamer
This moderately-priced, three-piece, stainless steel steamer-juicer enables the authors to make and then freeze at least 30 quarts per year of wonderful, no-fuss blueberry juice without the need for straining. Photo by the authors.

by Lee Ann Ward and Larry Lack

© 2005. For information about reproducing this article, please contact the authors.

We’re fortunate to own some 2 acres of beautiful, moderately productive wild blueberry land near the Machias River in Whitneyville, Maine. In alternate years when we burn or mow this land and forego the harvest, we have access to organic blueberries from friends’ fields in Washington County.

We won’t list all the benefits of the antioxidants, vitamins, other nutrients and fiber that blueberries provide. You likely know that blueberries are much more than just a pretty taste. And raking or picking blueberries for yourself or friends, especially if you can combine this brisk, aerobic exercise with a dip in a nearby river or lake, is one of the sweetest pleasures of summer in this part of the world.

Organic blueberry land is a unique ecosystem that supports a rich variety of mammals, garter snakes, toads, birds, insects, spiders, wildflowers, sweet fern, true ferns, acid soil – stunted birches and poplar, and a score of other plants that co-evolved (and tend to compete) with blueberries. Besides offering fun and great snacking, spending time in an unsprayed blueberry field presents an intense experience of this productive ecosystem and the wonderfully adapted blueberry plants that are its key component.

Dining on blueberries is a most rewarding way of “eating local” food in New England, Quebec and the Maritimes. Thousands of acres of blueberry land grow, much in scattered patches, but some concentrated in the hundreds of square miles of eastern Maine’s inaptly named blueberry “barrens.”

We take full advantage of this blue bounty at harvest time. We eat quarts and quarts of fresh berries straight from the field or with cereals, ice cream, yogurt, in muffins and pancakes, in salads and smoothies.

We also freeze some berries for later use, but when the harvest ends, we continue to get our fix of blueberries just about every day of the year by relying mostly on two other simple preservation techniques: drying and juicing.

Dried Blueberries

When the berries are ready to rake, we get 50 cardboard beverage boxes from a local liquor store-boxes the stores use to stack and transport cans of beer and soft drinks. We cover any holes in the bottom with tape. We rake a single layer into these shallow boxes.

We place these boxes on our sunny, southwest deck, shaking them every few hours to turn the berries, and sometimes realigning the boxes to catch more sun. At the end of the day or when the sky is overcast, we move the boxes indoors. Next morning, when the sun hits the deck and clears the dew, we put the boxes back on the deck.

Wind helps dry the berries, but too much can send the boxes flying. Shelter from strong wind or an anchor (such as a half brick or rock in each box) may be required. We watch the weather and get the boxes under cover before rain can dampen our high tech dehydration system. And of course dogs, small children and hungry adults have to be kept out of the drying area, or berries may mysteriously disappear!

Although we prefer direct sun drying, blueberries (and other berries) can be dried well in a greenhouse or in a vehicle parked so that sun reaches the berries for as many hours as possible each day.

Four to seven days of drying in any of these settings usually produces a perfectly dried blueberry “raisin.” (Because blueberries come in different sizes and thus dry at different rates, a little sorting is necessary every other day or so to produce evenly dry-but-not-too-dry raisins.) Properly dried blueberries retain some moisture, and they retain the exquisite flavor of fresh berries. Stored in tightly closed glass jars in a cool, dark location, the dried fruit can hold that flavor for months, although long-term, they store better in the freezer.

When moistened in cooking (or in pancake batter or baking mixtures), dried blueberries “reconstitute,” providing blueberry devotees that special flavor, delicate texture and deep blue color of fresh berries. We enjoy dried berries in salads, especially with grated root crops or cabbage and citrus; and in muffins, scones, banana bread, pancakes and waffles. After soaking in water they can be used in pies, crisps and other desserts.

We add blue raisins to curries while they cook. (Try a handful, for example, in curried chicken soup with winter squash, wild mushrooms and kale.) And of course dried blueberries go into our morning cereal as it cooks and add a satisfying chewy sweetness to granola.

Blueberry Juice (“Azure Ambrosia”)

A couple of years ago we bought a three-piece, stainless steel steamer-juicer. With this moderately priced appliance we make wonderful, no-fuss blueberry juice without the need for straining. The juice drips from the colander section into the kettle section below. From there a rubber hose delivers the hot juice directly into sterilized jars. The blueberry “mash” remaining in the colander can be frozen for later use in jams, chutneys and desserts, or spread to dry in a slow oven to make delicious blueberry “leather.”

Each year we freeze at least 30 quarts of this rich, sweet nectar, thawing a quart at a time and mixing it with apple juice and a little orange juice for the table. Since the blueberry juice is pretty concentrated, it blends well with these and other juices. It’s also wonderful with bubbly water. The appearance of foods and drinks does matter, and the intense blue color of blueberry juice contributes to the appeal of these blended drinks, which really are quite beautiful.

In July, we count the quarts of juice that remain, and either give some to friends or start rationing what’s left as the next harvest approaches. In August we spruce up the rakes, haul out the empty jars and juicer, and head for the fields again!

About the authors: Lee Ann Ward and Larry Lack have 2 acres of organic blueberry land in Whitneyville, near Machias. Lee Ann is a legal investigator, and Larry does organic farm inspections. They are environmental and community activists; have managed farmers’ markets; and have lived and worked in the Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Guatemala. They’re now based in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, where they raise a large backyard garden.

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