Blueberries: History, Culture and Uses
Native Americans called them Star Berries. They believed that the Great Spirit sent them from the stars to feed them and keep them healthy. He marked the bottom of each fruit with a star so that they would never forget where this fruit came from.
Blueberries were used by the North American indigenous peoples in many ways. The dried berries were used as food in stews, and pounded into meat to add flavor and help preserve it. The juice was used as a cough medicine, and the leaves and roots were ground and dried into powder to treat a number of ailments.
When the European settlers arrived in America, the natives taught them how to harvest and prepare blueberries. Chances are excellent that blueberries in more than one form were on the menu at the First Thanksgiving.
This week, I made the four-mile trip down the road to our local U-Pick blueberry patch. Mr. Glen Olson owns The Berry Patch in Dexter, KY, and he has over thirty cultivars of blueberries. His cultivars range from the old variety Covelle, to a new hybrid called Pearl River. The berries have different maturity dates, so people can pick them from the end of May through the first of August. Rabbiteye and Northern Highbush are two species of blueberries that grow well in our area, and he has several cultivars of both kinds.
Now, blueberries are not a common crop here in west Kentucky. They tend to grow best in acid soil conditions, and the soil here is thought to be too 'sweet' for the berries to produce properly. Mr. Olson has proved that blueberries can be a successful crop here in Kentucky with very little attention. He works about 6oz of sulfate fertilizer around each bush every spring before the bushes bloom, and trims a few branches back where they have cold damage from the winter.
His blueberries have very few pests. Mainly voles and Japanese Beetles. Birds pick their fair share, and sometimes they can also be problematic, but voles cause the most damage. They eat the roots of the bushes, and he has lost quite a few over the years to their destructive habits. A device that he had shipped in from California designed to combat gophers has proved to be somewhat successful, but it is an on-going battle. He sprays no pesticides or poison for the insects or voles, preferring to lose a few berries to the pests, as opposed to making a customer ill. His Berry Patch is open from 5pm to sundown each day, and he charges $2 per pound for the fruit that you pick.
Each season he tends his berries, and they happily give him loads of sweet, firm fruit. Pruning is limited to removing a bit of old or dead wood, as next season's buds set on the bush as soon as this year's crop is ripe.
Bumblebees and Mason Bees are the primary pollinators, as honey bees cannot reach far enough down into the flower to pollinate it. Bushes as young as three years old were laden with fruit. Although he said that experts advise that bushes that young should not be allowed to produce, he has seen absolutely no difference in the health and ultimate productivity of blueberry bushes if they are allowed to fruit at an early age, as opposed to the ones that are not. His seven to eight year old bushes were tall and hanging full of fruit.
Mr. Olson was more than willing to offer suggestions for using blueberries, presenting me a huge handful of dried ones from the container he keeps in his truck. He snickered and told me that he has added them to his chili recipe too, having concluded that the Native Peoples might have discovered a great taste combination when they combined them in their meat dishes. He claims that they add an out of the ordinary sweet and sour element to the chili. He was interesting, and full of information. His love for growing edibles was quite evident, and if you are near Dexter, he would love company.
Blueberries are one of the most healthful foods that can be consumed. Their wonderful antioxidant properties have been validated from many sources. They are full of vitamins and low in calories and fat. Any search on the healthful properties of blueberries will return a great number of hits singing their praises.
Most people are familiar with blueberry muffins or blueberry pancakes, but are unsure how to use blueberries for anything other than a breakfast food. Blueberry Vinegar is a unique way to use this fruit. It is simple to make, and can be added to many recipes for depth of flavor. A few uses could include salad dressings, marinades, or simply sprinkling a little over fish or chicken as they cook. Blueberry vinegar would make a unique and lovely gift from one's kitchen for any number of occasions where presents are exchanged. This recipe is from Linda J. Amendt's book "Blue Ribbon Preserves"
3 cups fresh or frozen blueberries, crushed
4 cups rice vinegar
Place blueberries in a 1 ½ to 2 quart clean glass jar
Heat vinegar in a stainless steel saucepan until very hot, but still below boiling. Do not allow vinegar to boil. Remove pan from heat. Pour over the crushed fruit and swirl the jar to blend the contents. Set aside to cool. When mixture is cool, cover the jar opening with two layers of plastic wrap, and screw on the lid. Place jar in a paper bag and set it in a cool, dark location for two weeks. Taste the vinegar in two weeks. You can leave it another week or two if you like a very strong flavor. It takes from two to four weeks for the vinegar to develop its full flavor.
When the vinegar has reached the desirable flavor, strain with a fine meshed sieve over a bowl. Discard the pulp and seeds. Rinse the sieve and line with three layers of cheesecloth. Strain the liquid through this. Line the sieve with a paper coffee filter and strain again into a clean container. Cover and let stand overnight to allow any sediment to settle in the bottom of the container.
Line the sieve with two coffee filters. Slowly pour the vinegar through the sieve, being careful not to disturb any sediment on the bottom. Pour strained vinegar into sterile bottles, leaving ½" of headspace.
This vinegar will make a beautiful and tasty gift for anyone who loves good food.
For those who do not wish to take the time to make the vinegar, an easy summer desert might be more your taste. The red, white and blue theme will be perfect for July 4th.
Easy Red, White, and Blue Fresh Fruit Dessert
Fresh blueberries, rinsed and drained
Fresh strawberries, rinsed, drained and sliced
Plain, or vanilla yogurt, depending on personal taste
A couple of elegant cookies
Layer the blueberries and strawberries in desert cups with the yogurt
Garnish with a couple of fancy cookies and serve
Enjoy your red, white and blue dessert!