Once in a blue moon you come across a dream of a blueberry patch.
This last long weekend of the summer that just disappeared over the horizon offered exactly that when a friend invited us in a last minute, spontaneous kind of way to come and pick blueberries at a u-pick field in Surrey.
It's great, she promised. Turned out it was much more than that.
If I'd ever imagined slipping away at the end of my life to a spot to lie down and die, it would be a blueberry field just like that one on a golden late summer's day, with row upon row of blueberry bushes, heavy and fragrant with fruit, set off by a cloudless sky and dry grasses swaying in the breeze.
Those grasses were the first good sign after the one on the roadside announcing u-pick at 80 cents a pound. Cheap compared with the usual $1.30 or so a pound for most u-picks in the area, and much cheaper than the going rate at local stores where B.C. blueberries are in the range of $3 a pound.
But a u-pick field full of beautiful wild grasses and plants, otherwise known as weeds, means the place hasn't been sprayed with a herbicide. One so quiet you can hear the grasshoppers fly by means you're far from the madding crowd and your berries won't be coated with the black residue from traffic that fields near busy highways suffer.
Given the number of varieties of blueberries grown here in B.C. — the catalogue from Sidhu Growers, one of the biggest suppliers of blueberry stock in the province, lists 22 varieties of Northern Highbush alone, from the late-bearing Auroras to the Spartans with their excellent flavour — you'll feel like you've struck gold if you find a field with berries tailored to your taste.
We lucked out in our field of older, taller bushes with small, fragrant berries. That meant we didn't have to bend over to pick, which is a good thing as some growers convert to the cold-hardy "half-high" varieties. These are a cross between the lowbush varieties and the typical Northern Highbush varieties, which grow to be about six feet high.
B.C. is king of highbush blueberries in North America. With some 800 farmers in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley growing blueberries on about 8,000 hectares, we account for 95 per cent of the highbush blueberries grown in Canada.
Lowbush varieties, which grow between one and two feet high, are native to Eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S.. Commercial lowbush operations amount to tending wild plants to encourage them to spread. Even though they are grown commercially, these lowbush varieties can be labelled as "wild blueberries" when sold, something I find a little deceptive.
As for my taste buds, those smaller local B.C. berries usually mean more of that distinctive, perfumy blueberry flavour compared to some of the varieties we're seeing lately that may have certain desirable qualities, such as cold hardiness, but produce berries as big as grapes with a so-so flavour.
Never mind the mechanical harvesters that can be used with any commercial blueberry operation, high- or lowbush. When I visited the Pacific Agriculture Show, held at the Tradex in Abbotsford every January, I was blown away by the optical sorters that use special imaging cameras and lasers to automatically pick out any unwanted fruit — blueberries, raspberries, whatever. Soft, unripe, rotten or off-colour — out it goes on one side while all the perfect little berries headed for store shelves head off on the other side. Cost: a mere $90,000.
But we didn't need one of those babies out in our field of dreams. It didn't take long to figure out a technique that had the deep blue, ripe berries rolling into our buckets, leaving the unripe ones on the bush for the next batch of pickers. Any potentially overripe ones went straight into our mouths.
With one bush capable of producing 6,000 blueberries in a single year, it felt like we could fill one container from a single bush. I don't know how we would fare up against the pros in a picking Olympics, but the three of us came in with 22 pounds in less than three hours.
I will say this though. We also came away with newfound respect for those out in the sun or rain day after day, picking. We got to quit when it felt less like fun and more like work plus we didn't have to get up early the next morning to do it all again. So hats off to the pickers out in the fields bringing in our food.
As for the berries themselves, we've been eating up a storm for days. The fridge looks like a warehouse with bowls of fresh berries and jars of blueberry sauce that's been slowly simmered on the stovetop. A little butter, a little sugar, a little vanilla, anise seed or cinnamon, and no water. Try a splash of a nice liqueur if it gets too thick.
The freezer is the handiest partner after a u-pick session. Don't rinse your berries. Just clean and sort them, then spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet to freeze before bagging them up in freezer bags or small containers. Rinse before using.
I swear, too, that my eyesight is getting better. (Britain's RAF had a whole program to feed its fighter pilots blueberries during World War II to improve their night vision for night bombing runs.) Ditto my overall health. Blueberries are one of the richest sources of antioxidants, something we all need to counter the oxidative stress linked to loss of brain function, including memory; cardiovascular disease; cancer and other age-related diseases. Like cranberries, they also contain proanthocyanidins, which can help prevent urinary tract infections.
As for that blue moon, did you catch it last weekend whether you were coming in from a blueberry field or not? Whenever you get two full moons in one month, the second one is called a blue moon. It only happens once every two and a half years — or once in a blue moon.
But you can pick your own blueberries much more regularly. Go to bcblueberry.com for a u-pick farm experience that will put you over the moon.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who is about to whip up a few blueberry pies. Come on over.
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