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Food and drink: Ain’t no cure for the blueberry blues

B.C.’s the mother load for these miraculous little berries

I've always been a fall girl for blueberries. Addict. Obsessive-compulsive. Possessed.

I'll walk 10 miles for fresh sweet blueberries.

In fact, I almost gave up my wee school-girl life for the taste of them one Alberta summer when we stopped on the way home from Pigeon Lake to pick wild blueberries. I was so excited I dashed across the road right in the path of an oncoming car. It never could have stopped in time. The whoosh as it passed a heel's breadth away made every tiny blonde hair on my arms stand up.

At a very young age, I learned the finer points of good blueberry pies.

My elementary school in Edmonton did an annual fall fundraiser when our shins were still scabby from summer holiday shenanigans and our skinny little arms and legs hadn't yet faded from sun-baked brown.

All the mothers baked pies, which we kids dutifully carried to school. There they were carefully cut into eighths, plated and covered with weird, crinkly plastic wrap from the school cafeteria.

On Pie Day, the pieces were laid out on tables in the school gym. A slice of pie heaven could be had for one slim quarter.

Lemon meringue pie, peach pie, coconut cream pie, banana cream pie, apple pie, pie pastry filled with Jell-O instant chocolate pudding (good to a kid's palate, but not really a pie), rhubarb pie from the moms who had thought to freeze rhubarb in the spring, raisin pie, mincemeat pie from the moms who had some leftover from the previous Christmas (it lasts for years, you know), chiffon pie, butterscotch pie, pecan pie, pumpkin pie and custard pies with graham cracker crusts.

To a nine-year-old kid, it looked like an endless sea of pieces of pie more precious than pieces of eight.

Given my addiction to blueberry pies, I circled the tables carefully, carefully, carefully assessing the offerings. At last I found what looked to be the ultimate prize: a fat piece of blueberry pie stuffed with a glistening purplish-black filling of blueberries set off by a pretty powder-pale crust.

I ran with it back to my mom, who cocked an eyebrow and asked if I was sure that was the one I wanted.

Moms are smart, for what seemed like a prize turned out to be crap. The crust was as flaccid and tasteless as milquetoast, and the filling was a disaster - not enough sugar to bring out the flavour and made with so much cornstarch to thicken the juices you could have bounced it through the gym basketball hoops.

Not that I knew all this. It took a fruit pie aficionado like my mom to explain. I still hear her words every time I make a blueberry pie - a ritual this time of year.

Blessed are those who live in beautiful B.C. for we have about 650 blueberry growers pumping out some 80 million pounds of the sweet little things every year. The industry primarily relies on high-bush varieties originally hybridized in New Jersey, not the local wild varieties of Vaccinium .

So dump some blueberries into your muffin or pancake batter, throw a handful into your yogurt, another in your granola, whip them up in a smoothie - and save the rest for a pie or just plain munching. They're one of the naturally sweetest fruits, with 11 per cent sugar content by weight.

These fabulous blue beauties - at the top of their season right now - are as good for you as they are delicious. They're rich in phenolic antioxidants, which help counteract the destructive "oxidation" processes that can contribute to all sorts of diseases from cancer to heart disease.

They're also loaded with anthocyanin pigments, which help reduce eyestrain - Royal Air Force pilots ate blueberries in World War II to improve their night vision. And, like cranberries, blueberries contain the kind of tannins that help with urinary infections.

If you go a little crazy and eat too many of them, though, you might find yourself constipated. Blueberries, or bilberries as Europeans call them, also contain compounds called anthocyanosides, ergo their use as an old-fashioned cure for diarrhea.

About the only downside with blueberries is they are downright evil when it comes to staining. Get a little blueberry juice - love that Bremner's brand - or a little blueberry jam or pie on your summer shirt and bingo-bango, you might as well toss it. At least that's what I thought until I learned the following trick. It works wonders with any fruit stains.

Presuming you use washable clothes and tablecloths, boil up a whole kettle of water. Stretch the blueberry- or whatever-stained garment over the sink so the water will flow through and pour the entire kettle of boiling water onto the stain from as high as you can without scalding yourself. It works!

Whatever you do, don't use a chemical stain remover or soap. Five will get you 10 the spot will turn green, as blueberry pigments often do when cooked with alkaline ingredients, such as baking soda in muffins.

To test the above, I highly recommend making a good blueberry pie - one without cornstarch - from the recipe below, compliments of the finest pie maker on the planet, my mom.

How to make the best blueberry pies ever

Pre-heat your oven to 450º. For one nine-inch pie, make your favourite pastry. Use Robin Hood's pie crust mix if you're not into making your own from scratch. Place the bottom pie crust, and sprinkle 1-2 tbsp. of flour on it. Dump in blueberries, or whatever fruit you like. Make a nice big mound, much higher that the lip of the pie plate as the fruit collapses when cooked. Sprinkle 1/3 c. sugar over the fruit. For sour fruit, like transparent apples, you'll need 2/3 c. Sprinkle 1 tbsp. of flour and 2 tsp. of fresh lemon juice over the fruit. Add dabs of butter, evenly spaced, and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg as you like. Place the top crust and brush with milk to brown the pastry. Sprinkle lightly with sugar. Cut a few slits to let the steam out. Bake for 10 minutes at 450º then lower the oven temperature to 375º and continue baking for another 30 minutes, or until the juices start to bubble through the steam slits. Enjoy!

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who specializes in pies on the side.




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