Waterloo Region Record
Small and sweet or plump and juicy, they’re nature’s indigo masterpiece
If there’s one fruit that knits much of Canada together, it might be the blueberry.
For thousands of years, those wild indigo berries thrived in the boreal forest’s acidic soils that stretch from the Yukon to Newfoundland. After deforestation and wildfires, the plants spread naturally through an extensive network of rhizomes, providing food for wildlife and people. Black bears will trek 100 kilometres to snuffle through a patch; a single bear can eat 30,000 berries a day.
Wild blueberry patches are also where generations of First Nations peoples gathered to harvest the fruit, socialize, trade and pass on knowledge. Berries were eaten fresh, juiced, dried, cooked into fruit butter, mixed into corn puddings, and combined with tallow and pulverized dried meat for pemmican. Their medicinal uses range from easing coughs to muscle relaxants during childbirth.
Blueberry-picking traditions continue today among many Indigenous people. Those trips form some of Germaine Catchpole’s fond childhood memories. The Mnopgwad Preserves founder travelled with family by boat to berry patches in northwestern Ontario’s Lac Seul First Nation. The fruit was baked in bannocks and muffins, stewed, and mixed in wild rice dishes.
“That was something we all would do, my cousins, my auntie, my kokum (grandmother), my whole family,” says Catchpole. “My kokum and my aunties knew the best blueberry patches. We would go early in the morning and spend the day doing that.”
Blueberries are native to North America. As part of the heath or heather family, they’re related to cranberries, huckleberries and rhododendrons. They’re also related to the similar-looking bilberries and blaeberries in Britain, Northern Europe and Northern Asia.
The plants are divided into two categories: lowbush (wild) and highbush (cultivated). Lowbush varieties have been commercially canned since at least the U.S. Civil War, but highbush cultivation is only about a century old. Lowbush plants naturally grow from Illinois to Texas to Florida to Nova Scotia and are exported worldwide.
More than half of the land used for Canadian commercial fruit growing is for blueberries. We’re also the world’s second-leading producer: in 2019, we harvested more than 176,000 tonnes. Nationally, British Columbia leads in highbush production. Most lowbush berries come from Eastern Canada and Quebec.
Fruiting starts about six to eight weeks after the plant’s bell-like blossoms appear, with harvest lasting about three or four weeks.
Weather plays a big factor in fruiting. The Walch family, owners of TNT Berries in Shakespeare, sees many more berries on their plants this year than last, in a mix of sizes.
“We normally say if it’s hot and dry, you have small, sweet berries. If it’s wet, you have big juicy berries,” says Maggie Walch. “We were here, (in June), pulling weeds and it was so hot and we thought they were going to be ready much sooner than we anticipated. But then, once the rain hit, it slowed everything
down.” Without some effort, local soil often doesn’t support blueberries, but TNT’s pick-your-own patch is “nearly perfect” — well-drained soil with the correct pH level.
The Walchs grow mid-season varieties, often ready for picking from July into August, but types can fruit anywhere from spring to autumn. Unlike lowbush berries, which are pretty much ready at the same time, highbush fruit ripens at different speeds, meaning one berry cluster can range from green to pink to dark blue. Bushes only need one day’s rest after a particularly heavy day of picking.
“I think everybody picks for a different reason and for a different season. Some people are picking for an entire year’s worth of frozen blueberries for themselves, whereas for other people it’s just like a fun excursion,” says Nadia Walch.
When buying fresh blueberries, look for dry, plump berries that are uniformly blue (the whitish bloom is perfectly fine). Keep them uncovered in the fridge and rinse before using.
Wild blueberries are small and intensely flavoured, while cultivated ones are plumper and juicier — you can easily substitute one for the other in recipes. Most of us toss some in pancake or muffin batter or whiz them up in smoothies, but they work well in savoury dishes such as crostini with feta or sauces accompanying chicken, pork or game. They’re also an excellent starting point for novice jam makers.
Unlike other fruits, the only prep needed is washing. Catchpole says most home cooks already have the tools — a stockpot, masher, wooden spoon — but canning kits include nice-to-have items such as a magnetic lid lifter and a jar lifter.
She suggests personalizing your jams and preserves by playing with flavours.
“I really like herbs in jams but also it would be really cool to incorporate other fruit as well, like a nice blueberryraspberry or blueberry-cherry.”
Blueberry Wild Rice Pudding
Recipe courtesy of Germaine Catchpole
Cooking time: about an hour
Yield: 4 servings
250 mL (170 g) uncooked wild rice, rinsed and drained
5 mL salt
2 or 3 cardamom pods, whole or lightly crushed
5 mL vanilla extract
125 mL (75 g) fresh or frozen blueberries
60 mL pure maple syrup
To serve (optional): fresh blueberries, ice cream, or whipped cream
Over medium heat, combine wild rice with salt, cardamom pods, and vanilla extract in 1.5 litres of water. Bring to a rapid boil for about five minutes and then reduce heat to a gentle simmer.
Cook until the majority of grains have cracked open, so you can see their white centres, and they are al dente. The rice is overcooked when they begin to curl. Total cooking time will be about 35 to 45 minutes.
Drain water. Add blueberries and maple syrup. Stir constantly on mediumlow heat until the blueberries burst, and the maple syrup and berry juices have reduced and thickened to hold grains together, about 10 minutes.
Remove pods and serve warm with optional fresh blueberries, ice cream, or whipped cream.