I've been paying annual visits to my friends Nathan and Clara and their little ones on their farm in Brooklin, Maine since 2008. But I've always visited in the spring or early summer, when the wild blueberries are blooming, but not yet ripe. This year, though, I made my yearly pilgrimage in early September, in what I discovered to be the most glorious season in Maine, with sunny days, perfect temperatures, and the wild blueberries, huckleberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cranberries all ripe for the picking. Even the early apples were ready to be pressed into cider.
One afternoon, we walked out to their blueberry fields with rakes and pails and Nathan taught us how to harvest the berries by running a hand-held rake through the shrubs. The wild lowbush blueberries, vaccinium angustifolium, that are native to Maine and other northern regions of the United States, were a staple of the Native American diet in those regions. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, native peoples ate the berries fresh or sun-dried them to be used in puddings or cakes or ground them into meal to flavor meats and soups. New England colonists called the berries "hurtleberries" or "whortleberries"-- if you come across a period recipe that calls for them, you now know what it's referring to.
The more widespread highbush blueberry was not cultivated until the early 1900s and is generally a combination of highbush, "rabbit-eye," and lowbush varieties. Low-bush berries can be about four times smaller than their domesticated highbush counterparts and lack the tartness, instead packing a sweet, potent punch. Because of this, they are ideal to be enjoyed just fresh as is-- and by the handful.
After we raked several bushels, we lugged our full pails back down to the barn, where Nathan put them through the winnower-- a sort of steampunk contraption composed of various belts and gears, designed to separate the stems and sticks that collect with the berries while raking.
Clara and Nathan like to make this Fresh Blueberry Pie, layering a quick jam with fresh berries on top, in a baked pie crust topped generously with whipped cream. Their recipe offers the best of both worlds-- cooked and fresh berries, and aside from the pie crust preparation, it comes together quickly, so you can get to eating faster. It would be suitable for any type of berry-- huckleberries, blackberries, raspberries, or maybe a combination for a "Maine in September Fresh Berry Pie."
From Clara & Nathan of Stoneset Farm
Nothing in the House pie crust recipe, halved
1 quart fresh low-bush blueberries (can also use high-bush blueberries or any kind of berry, really)
1/2 cup white sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Turbinado sugar, for dusting
1. Prepare half of Nothing in the House pie crust as per the directions, reserving the leftover egg for an egg wash and saving other half of the recipe in the freezer for a future pie. Chill dough at least one hour before rolling and fitting into a greased and floured 9-inch pie pan. Prick crust with fork all over the bottom. Place pie pan in the freezer for 1 hour to set before baking. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Remove crust from freezer, line with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Blind bake crust for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove paper and weights, brush with egg wash and dust with Turbinado sugar. Return crust to oven and bake for 5-8 more minutes more or until fully baked, puffed, and golden brown. Let cool while you prepare the filling.
3. In a saucepan, mash 1 1/2 cups of the berries with the sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice, and nutmeg. Bring sauce to a boil and stir until thick. You're essentially making a quick jam, so it should be about the consistency of thick sauce or heated preserves.
4. Gently stir in another 1 1/2 cups of berries until incorporated. Pour into baked pie crust and smooth. Top with remaining 1 1/2 cups of berries and chill until set, at least 1 hour. Serve, as Nathan and Clara say, with "scads of whipped cream."
Blueberry Hand Pies
Blueberry Icebox Pie