The Wild Blueberries of Maine – Geologists state that nearly one-third of the world was covered by ice. During the last ice age, roughly 20,000 years ago, much of North America was covered by glaciers creating a barren land of ice. As the glaciers moved when the ice receded, they carried huge rocks that were worn down creating smaller rocks, gravel, dirt, and sand leaving a very complex, layered, mineral rich soil combination. The melting ice gave birth to newly formed streams and rivers thereby nurturing a foundation for new vegetation, including wild blueberries.
Recently, the Wild Blueberry Association of North America invited a group of registered dietitians and food bloggers, myself included, to visit the massive wild blueberry barrens of Maine. The beautiful state of Maine, in fact, is the largest producer of wild blueberries representing nearly 40 percent of the world’s total wild blueberry production.
It is here, in Maine, that I learned to admire the wild blueberry. Most of us have admired them for their vitamins and antioxidant properties. We’ve heard that eating blueberries helps fight cancer, many refer to them as a superfood, and of course, we all know they taste delicious. But what is it about the wild blueberries of Maine that sets them apart from the patch?
Native to North America, wild blueberries have been thriving in the glacial soil referred to above for thousands of years but it was the Native Americans who first encouraged the growth of the wild blueberry by burning the fields, called barrens. The burning process actually stimulates the growth of the wild blueberry which grows up from the ground through their natural roots called rhizomes. One single rhizome can produce an entire field of wild blueberries and it is natural for several varieties of rhizomes to rise up in the fields producing deep blue wild blueberries, some more red in color, or even lush purple colored wild blueberries. Not only does this naturally occurring variety of berries make for a savory product for you to enjoy, but it also makes the fields so inviting I chose to lie down in them – see photograph below taken by writer and public relations executive, Betta Stothart.
It is important to note that most people visualize blueberries as growing way above ground on a tall bush. These tall bushes are called the “high bush” blueberries and although all blueberries are derived from the wild blueberry, the high bush blueberries are cultivated. They do not grow wild and were thereby given the official name of “tame” by the US Department of Agriculture.
It’s pretty remarkable that the wild blueberry began growing naturally through the incredibly dense glacial soil, right? These must be some pretty strong plants. This strength just may prove my theory as to why the wild blueberry claims 2x’s the antioxidants as their tame cousins. The wild blueberry is also a bit smaller and more concentrated than the tame cultivated berries, however, this year’s harvest showcased some of the most plump, lush, and flavorful wild blueberries ever. According to David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist with the Cooperative Extension and professor of horticulture in the School of Food and Agriculture at the University of Maine, good buds in the winter, the high amount of pollination by honey bees and bumblebees, adequate rainfall, and good weather during the harvest season have led to the success of this year’s crop and helped the blueberries thrive in their wild environment.
When the wild blueberries are ready for harvest, usually in late July or early August, 500 growers, of which 50 are certified organic, pick the berries by either hand-raking or mechanical harvestings. Our group had the opportunity to view both harvest techniques and actually experience hand-raking “first hand” at Merrill Blueberry Farms. Owner, Todd Merrill was kind enough to teach us the process which uses a fairly large metal rake that you hold by hand and scoop and shake the blueberries off the vines. Then you politely dump them into a bin and repeat the process for about 8 hours. What a workout! And, Merrill Farms is one of the top organic wild blueberry producers in the region. However, another important aspect to point out is that even non-organic farmed wild blueberries are grown with limited pesticides due to their emphasis on natural pests and insect control.
After the field harvest, whether mechanical or hand-raking, blueberries are taken to the processing plants where they are handled with kid gloves and processed from fresh to individually quick frozen in 24 hours. A triple washing and air drying process that is so proprietary we were not allowed to photograph, the blueberries are then individually frozen. True! The IQF (individually quick frozen) process is so specialized that the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and flavor of each blueberry is locked in providing you with the highest quality for your family. As Thomas Gardner, VP of Wyman & Son, a family owned company since 1874, says, “the IQF process is nature’s pause button.” Wyman & Son, a proven leader in the wild blueberry market, processes on average 1 million pounds of wild blueberries per day. WOW!
Giving a new perspective to fresh frozen fruits, fresh cultivated berries found it most grocery stores are often picked early and travel long distances thereby depleting vital nutrients and flavor. The IQF wild blueberries which, in my opinion, fought their way out of the ground to produce the antioxidant rich blueberry, provide you and your family with the highest quality fruit year round. Locally, in Maine, fresh wild blueberries can be purchased at Farmer’s Markets, shops and grocers. As for the rest of us, buy these specially frozen flavor dense berries in the freezer section of your grocery store. Your grocery retailer does not carry them? Don’t be shy! Request they bring them in. Most of the time, store managers are thrilled to do so. Chances are if you are looking for them, others are too.
A few more reasons to love Maine Wild Blueberries… chefs love them! Bar Harbor Inn Executive Chef Louis Kiefer grows them in his own backyard. He brings in what he calls this “versatile ingredient” to serve with dishes like Wild Blueberry & Tomato Salsa, Taste of Brie with Pear, Wild Blueberry and Basil, and Wild Blueberry Sorbet.
At Havana Restaurant, where we dined “with” Martha Stewart – she just happened to dine at the table adjacent to us, wild blueberries were the feature of the evening with selections of Wild Blueberry cocktails, Seared Scallops with wild Maine blueberry vinaigrette, Beef Tenderloin Skewers with a wild Maine blueberry chimichurri, and Goat Cheese Cheesecake with wild Maine blueberry compote.
Dining didn’t stop there. The next night we were whisked away in a power boat steered by Captain Dan which took us across waters filled with lobster pots to the quaint island of Little Cranberry Island where we dined at Islesford Dock Restaurant “with” again, Martha Stewart! Yep, who would have believed but the Queen of culinary walked in again – for the second night in a row – while we were dining. We dine in good taste, wouldn’t you say, Martha? Our Islesford Dock dining experience had most of us diving in to the truly fresh Maine lobsters. Lobster so tender the butter didn’t stand a chance. And, Little Cranberry Island couldn’t keep the wild blueberries away. We finished dinner with one of the best Wild Blueberry Crisps ever to touch my lips.
As the chefs will agree, wild blueberries are a versatile ingredient. From savory dishes to sweet, nearly every recipe can be made with blueberries year round. Look for fresh frozen wild blueberries in your grocer’s freezer section. You won’t be disappointed.
A final note, I am a Certified Food Healer. My trip to the Wild Blueberry barrens supports the food healing properties of the berries in that they are filled with vital phytochemicals like anthocyanins which help repair cell damage (ie, help you age better), decrease inflammation in the brain (ie, help you think better), slow memory loss in adults (ie, help you remember better), and are linked to increasing memory and attention in both adults and kids. Bottom line for your top of the line superfood wild blueberry – eat up!
Wild blueberries for your skin? Wild blueberries are abundantly found in everything from soaps,
to jams and syrups,
to pancake mix,
and honored on coffee mugs, ceramics, and all kinds of gifts.
Walking in Bar Harbor, you’ll find wild blueberries on every menu.
Even the local lobster loves wild blueberry ice cream. 🙂 There are an abundance of ways to celebrate the wild blueberry…
A few links for your enjoyment:
Wild Blueberry Association of North America