It's difficult to imagine such abundance in an inhospitable environment until you see it for yourself.
The island of Newfoundland is famous for its wild blueberries, and September is the best time of year for picking. The rocky hillsides are covered in low-lying blueberry plants dotted with tiny fruits. You can grab them by the handful as you walk by, an explosion of sweet juice in your mouth that complements the extraordinary views all around.
I first heard about Newfoundland's blueberry season four years ago, when my sister Sarah Jane moved to St. John's for school. She's an avid hiker, forager, and baker (I've written about her wood-fired pizza and bagel company here), which is the ideal combination of interests when it comes to blueberry-picking. She had been telling me to come out east to experience it for myself, so finally I made the trek. We headed for the 'blueberry barrens' this past Saturday afternoon, empty containers in hand.
Berry-picking is taken very seriously here, I've discovered. Newfoundlanders are fiercely protective of their picking grounds and reluctant to disclose the best locations for fear of competition. (This goes against the heartwarming generosity I've encountered everywhere else.) Even Sarah Jane, a few years back, could only wheedle vague details out of her friend about the perfect blueberry spot. The friend mentioned Pouch Cove, a purple bus stop, and a road with a name that sounded like something, but she "didn't really know how she got there." Not one to take 'no' for an answer, Sarah Jane hopped in her car and drove around until she found it -- now, her go-to spot for picking every fall.
The blueberry barrens are surprisingly remote. After turning off the paved road and driving a mile on a bumpy dirt track that looked more suitable for ATVs than our tiny car, we parked and started climbing a rocky path to the hill top for another half-mile. Then we ducked into the bushes and walked through knee-high undergrowth, winding around fir trees and over fallen logs and loose rocks, for another 20 minutes, always climbing higher over the scree.
"Blueberries like slopes -- the higher, the better," Sarah Jane yelled back, the wind whipping her voice away. "They like disturbed rocky soil and hydro cuts, too, so I go as high as I can up the hillside, but not quite to the top."
I kept wanting to stop and pick, distracted by the lovely berries along the path, but she insisted they were denser up ahead. Sure enough, we got there and they were thicker than I've ever seen before. We picked diligently, racing the sunset to fill our containers.
The great thing about blueberries, I discovered, is that the ripe ones fall off the stem very easily, while unripe ones stay on. You can cup a clump of berries with your hand and gently pry them with your thumb, which is the quickest way to get them into a bowl. Sarah Jane has reached a level of expertise where she picks with two hands, but I'm not there yet.
We picked for two hours and then carefully carried our treasures back to the car. That night, we feasted on homemade blueberry pie -- a luxurious dessert that I would normally never make, because it requires such an extravagant use of a precious fruit ("A flagrant use," my uncle called it). The next morning, we dined on blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, and that evening, drizzled a quickly-simmered blueberry sauce, dressed with sugar and lemon, over our homemade ice cream.
When asked if she was reaching the end of her berry-picking for this season, Sarah Jane gasped. "Are you kidding? I'm just getting started. I still have half a freezer to fill." Fill it she will, I have no doubt. And once blueberries are done, she'll move on to cranberries and partridgeberries -- but I'll have to wait to experience that another time.