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.
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.''
The Wyman company processes more than 10 million pounds of frozen and canned berries a year, including special packages for such companies as Procter & Gamble (Duncan Hines), General Mills (Betty Crocker), General Foods, and Pillsbury.
The frozen berries go into a variety of package sizes. Wyman also cans cherries and apples for pie fillings, as well as sardines.
But blueberries are the big crop, and the large-scale marketing of them is not just for North America. They are shipped to Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and more recently to the Japanese.
Blueberries are a new food which the Japanese like, and the deep blue color appeals to their artistic sense. The berries are also considered very fashionable among the affluent, who like many things that are American.
The berries are shipped canned or frozen, so if the Japanese want fresh wild berries they'll have to come to Maine in the blueberry season.
Fresh, frozen, or canned blueberries may be used in the following recipes. Add frozen berries without thawing. If canned berries are used for bread, cake, muffins, gingerbread, or pancakes, drain them, rinse with cold water, and drain again. This causes less ''streaking'' of the color. Anne's Blueberry Scone 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1/2 cup sugar 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup shortening, oleo, or butter 2 eggs, beaten 1/2 cup sour milk, or more 1 cup blueberries Mix and sift dry ingredients together; cut in shortening as for biscuits. Add the beaten eggs and sour milk or buttermilk to make a soft dough. It may take 2 or 3 more tablespoons of sour milk, according to egg size.
Mix in blueberries and bake in a greased pan 7 1/2 by 11 1/2 inches, at 375 degrees F., about 30 minutes. Serve hot, or split and toast when cold. Blueberry Pie Pastry for 9-inch pie tin 4 cups blueberries 1 cup sugar 2 tablespoons flour 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons butter Line a 9-inch pie tin with pastry. Wash blueberries. If frozen berries are used, do not thaw them. Put berries into pastry-lined tin. Mix sugar, flour, spices, and salt and scatter over berries. Dot with butter; add top crust. Bake 40 minutes at 425 degrees F. or until done.
Margaret Chase Smith's Blueberry Cake 1/2 cup shortening 1 cup sugar 2 eggs 1 cup milk 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 4 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon nutmeg 2 cups blueberries Cream shortening; add sugar and beat until creamy. Add eggs and beat until light and foamy. Mix together and sift flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg, and add alternately to the creamed mixture with milk. Fold in blueberries. Bake in 2 well-greased 9- or 10-inch layer cake tins in a moderately hot oven, 375 degrees F., 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven. Cool 10 minutes in tins; then turn onto cake rack. When cool, put layers together with frosting.
Lil's Blueberry Gingerbread 1/2 cup shortening 1 cup sugar 1 egg 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup sour milk or buttermilk 1 teaspoon soda 3 tablespoons molasses 1 cup blueberries 3 tablespoons sugar Cream shortening and sugar. Add egg and mix well. Mix and sift together flour, ginger, cinnamon, and salt and add to creamed mixture alternately with sour milk in which soda has been dissolved. Add molasses.
Add blueberries and pour batter into a greased and floured pan 9 by 9 inches. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of sugar over batter in pan and bake at 350 degrees F. 50 minutes to 1 hour. The sugar makes a sweet, crusty topping. This cake is delicious warm from the oven, cold, and even better when two days old.