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Fresh wild blueberries

By Phyllis HanesFood editor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 14, 1983

Milbridge, Maine

This summer for the first time, there are fresh, wild blueberries in the supermarkets. These are the tiny, low-bush berries many of us remember picking in the long, lazy summers of our youth, not the plump, cultivated ones now in markets across the country from May through September.

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You probably haven't seen many of the fresh wild ones because they are picked by hand, not by machine, and storage and shipping are difficult.

Wild blueberries grow mainly in the New England states and in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Maine is this country's largest producer.

Preparing a package of fresh berries takes too much labor, but packaging and perishability are only some of the reasons more are not sold fresh.

Another reason is customer demand. Given a choice at the supermarket, most customers will choose the fatter, bigger, cultivated berries grown in South Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington.

The wild berry has plenty of fans who think it has a sweeter flavor, and a more delicate skin, but when it comes to size, the cultivated ones win hands down. One 8-ounce cup holds about 400 wild blueberries, compared with 100 of the cultivated. Cultivated ones are also more uniform in ripeness, since they can be harvested by machines that pick only the ripe ones.

But until now, virtually the entire crop has been frozen or canned. Only 1 percent was sold as fresh fruit at harvesttime.

At the Wyman processing plant here, I saw thousands of the wild ones, fresh from the pine barrens of Washington County, the area in Maine where most of the low-bush blueberries grow.

As I watched the tiny berries go through the washing and winnowing process, I realized that many Americans have never tasted wild blueberries except those in the little cans in boxes of muffin and pancake mix.

These are delicious, yes, and so are the frozen ones, but isn't fresh always better?

Others seem to think so. Enough others, evidently, to make an impression on Nancy Wilkinson of Jasper Wyman & Son, one of the biggest processing firms in Maine.

Mrs. Wilkinson, a third-generation Wyman, runs the 109-year-old business with her sister. She is also president of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.

We talked about the growing interest in wild and native American foods.

''Although the dry-pack frozen berries can be substituted for fresh in most recipes, many people apparently feel that nothing can substitute for the joy of dipping into a bowl of fresh, wild blueberries and eating them by the handful,'' Mrs. Wilkinson said.

''We've sent the wild fresh ones to some test markets this year, to see how it goes. If the public responds favorably, more will be in the markets next year.''

In the beginning the Wyman company canned lobster, before going into blueberries. ''Years ago lobster was so plentiful it was used for fertilizer. It was very cheap,'' Mrs. Wilkinson said.

The company started canning blueberries to help meet the food needs of the Union Army during the Civil War, and by 1875 the fruit crop was an integral part of the economy of Washington County.

Since the early days, progress has been made through research on blueberry cultivation and processing. But one problem that technology has not touched is the appetite of the Maine bears, who are fond of wild blueberries.

''They like honey, too, and we rent beehives from Florida, for pollination, in the spring,'' Nancy Wilkinson said.

''The bears go for the honey and sometimes destroy the hives. We wouldn't mind their eating the honey if they were neat and tidy. But they like to roll around, too, and damage a lot of bushes.''