Blueberries: the Island’s July Harvest
by: Marianne R. Stanton
July is blueberry-picking season on Nantucket, and with all the rains we have had leading up to summer, the forecast is for a plentiful harvest.
Nantucket’s sandy soils provide fertile ground for growing blueberries. Indeed, wild blueberries are prolific in the sandplain grasslands and middle moors where you’ll find lowbush berries. It’s back-breaking work, harvesting the berries by hand, for they are much smaller than commercial varieties. The flavor of island blueberries, however, is much more intense and sweeter.
Berry-picking was one of my favorite summer pastimes as a child. As a kid we used to make blueberry-picking pails out of Crisco cans. My grandmother had a cottage industry making doughnuts and giant molasses cookies on Saturday mornings, so there was always a steady supply of empty gallon Crisco containers forthcoming from her baking business. My grandfather would punch two holes on opposite sides of the can and fashion a wire handle from an old coat hanger and we were good to go.
Blueberries were seemingly everywhere on the island in July. Nana and grandpa would take us out into the moors off Polpis Road and navigate toward their favorite picking grounds. We would then proceed to fill our pails with Nantucket’s finest. We would pick for a while and then sit and snack on our harvest. After a while we’d wonder why it took so long for the pail to get full. When we finally did top it off, my grandfather would come by and dump our small pails of berries into his bigger basket. Then it was back to nana and grandpa’s house to divide up the spoils.
The destination of the berries was always predetermined. Early or late in the season, the berries were generally destined for a pie. We couldn’t wait to taste our first fresh blueberry pie of the summer, with vanilla ice cream, of course. Nana made her blueberry pies with a lattice crust, and it was always the dessert of choice for my grandfather’s birthday on July 31 instead of the standard birthday cake.
By mid-July we were selling our berries. It was the 1960s and there was none of the nonsense, red tape and permitting of today. Nantucket was a laid-back, easy-going community back then.
My friends and I would pack our berries in jars, load them up into our little red wagon (really) and take them down to Main Street where we’d park ourselves on a bench opposite The Sandpiper and sell our wares. Sales weren’t always brisk, so my grandmother contacted her friend Ray Wiley who owned The Chanticleer in Sconset (pre-Jean-Charles Berruet) and asked if he’d like some fresh blueberries for the pies and pancakes the restaurant served. We became wholesalers at the age of 10.
I don’t have the time for blueberry-picking these days, so I buy my berries for pancakes, snacking cakes and pies from commercial sources, always opting for organically-grown berries, and always tasting them at the market before purchasing. Sometimes they are mushy, and a firm texture is needed for baking.
Being sensitive to the carbon footprint I leave on the Earth, I rarely buy blueberries in the winter, as they’re imported from Chile. If a recipe calls for blueberries in the months when the north winds blow, I’ll buy frozen berries from Maine, which Stop & Shop stocks in its freezer case. I wait until summer for fresh berries where the sources are closer to home: New England and even Canada.
Pancakes are an obvious vehicle for blueberries, and if you make them from scratch, consider switching up half of the white flour for cornmeal, which provides a wonderful deep texture and flavor that is far more memorable than plain old buttermilk pancakes.
Blueberry pie is de rigueur for the summer dessert table, but not everybody wants to labor over a hot stove in the heat of July. Chef Daniel Bruce of Meritage in the Boston Harbor Hotel has a recipe for No-Bake Blueberry Pie from one of his earlier days cooking in Skowhegan, Maine that is a real winner.
I’m also partial to recipes that can do double duty, like a pan of blueberry bread pudding, using Something Natural challah bread, that
can be a dessert with blueberry sauce, and then the leftovers can be fried up and topped with butter and maple syrup for breakfast.
Susan Simon’s Puzzle Pudding takes summer berries at their peak of ripeness and bakes them under a brown-sugar crust that cracks under heat to reveal rivers of deep blue berries when the dish is pulled from the oven. Susan, our veteran food writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, likes to serve this warm on a pool of heavy cream.
My favorite blueberry dessert, however, is Toby Greenberg’s Blueberry Cheesecake. A graham-cracker crust is topped with cream cheese and blueberries and not too much sugar, so that the sweetness of this dish comes from the natural fruit flavor. The cheesecake is baked, and then before it is completely done, topped with sour cream that has been flavored with vanilla and sugar, and baked some more. After the cake has cooled, top it with a mound of tricolor berries – raspberries, blueberries and deep blackberries – or even kiwi slices for an unforgettable ending to a summer meal.///
Marianne Stanton is editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and the founding editor of Nantucket Today. She writes frequently about food, travel and island life.