Britain’s reliance on immigrant labour to pick fruit is a concern to farmers who fear that our decision to leave the EU will deter them in future (although a points-based immigration system is intended to ensure our immigration needs are catered for). However, the British reluctance to pick fruit does puzzle me. It used to be a great way for students to earn money during the summer holidays, but now they don’t appear to need the money. And although there does seem to be a growing interest in foraging for wild food, I can find almost no-one else picking Bilberries – a fantastically tasty and healthy fruit that used to be harvested commercially and still widely picked in Scandinavia. Yes, they are time consuming to pick, although I’d rather pick them than Sea Buckthorn berries, so fashionable at the moment. Have we just become “too posh to pick” or is the wonderful flavour of bilberries something that most people, including foragers, have yet to discover? I hope to inspire you to try them.
What is a Bilberry?
A Bilberry is the most widespread name for the fruit of the low, scrubby plants Vaccinium myrtillus but they are known by many different regional names including whortleberry and hurtleberry (West Country), blaeberry and whinberry (Scotland) and myrtille (France). Myrtleberry is the most confusing name as what is commonly known as a myrtle is the fruit of Myrtus communis, which grows in the Mediterranean, especially Sardinia and Corsica, and is a sweet but spicy berry similar to juniper. The Vaccinium genus includes cranberries and blueberries and grows on acidic soils in the northern part of the northern hemisphere.
Bilberries outside the UK
Bilberries grow all over Scandinavia and are still gathered in enormous quantities. There, they also have a northern bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) but prefer the superior intensity of flavour of Vaccinium myrtillus. I fell in love with bilberries in Alsace, a region of France renowned for its fruit tarts, of which I consider bilberry to be the finest. But it was in Italy that I found my bilberry comb – I recognised it having previously only seen one in a museum here in the UK. Bilberries are, evidently, still picked in the northern Italian hills although in decreasing numbers. In Ireland, Lammas Sunday, the last in July, is also known as Bilberry Sunday, marking the beginning of the harvest.
Exmoor’s Bilberry History
All of Britain’s moors grow bilberries, as well as the acidic heaths of Surrey, and whilst I am sure all of those regions have their own memories, it is in Somerset, particularly Exmoor, that I have learnt about its history.
On Exmoor, the permission of the landowner used to be required for picking, even on common land. The landowner would be pressured by locals to give this early, before gypsies arrived, and it was common for children to play truant from school to pick berries if the summer holidays had not yet started. Picking would continue “every fine day except Sunday’s” throughout August, moving to higher ground as the season progressed.
The pickers were usually paid by those who had transport to take the fruit to market – from Exmoor the fruit went mainly to Birmingham and Manchester, but they were also popular with the miners of Wales and North Yorkshire. Typically about one ton of bilberries would leave Minehead station each day. The price varied depending on the quality of berries that year, and also the varying demands, because bilberries were also used to dye cloth, including RAF uniforms. Fighter pilots swore that eating bilberry jam before a night flight helped their vision. The income from picking bilberries was often used to buy school clothes, giving some idea of our comparative wealth today. American soldiers stationed here loved them because of their similarity to their native cultivated blueberry, and whenever the Australian cricket team played in Somerset, it was traditional for The Castle Hotel to make them Whortleberry Pie. The fruit was also preserved, by bottling and in jam, to last throughout the year. You can still find whortleberry jam for sale on Exmoor, although gathering the berries in sufficient quantity makes even this rare.
Bilberries would be very difficult to cultivate, they grow only above an altitude of around 1000ft on acid soil, living in symbiosis with a fungus. Heather moorland is an ideal habitat in which to find them. The American highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosom) can however be cultivated in any acid, peaty or sandy soil. The berries are much larger, and together with the higher bushes, this makes them much easier to pick. Their health-giving properties have earnt them a reputation as a “superfood” and thus increased their popularity.
About a decade ago, one Exmoor farmer, blessed with the perfect growing conditions and mindful of the local whortleberry heritage, began cultivating blueberries. The project has been only moderately successful. When, and if, you can employ anyone to pick them the price of the berries is one that locals, surrounded by the free and much tastier bilberries, baulk at paying it. Blueberries are, after all, only sold in fairly small punnets, so if you are only adding a handful to your breakfast or dessert, it would not be too onerous to pick them. To buy them in sufficient quantity to be the dominant ingredient in a dish is not financially viable for the pubs, hotels and guest houses in the area. The farm now operates mainly on a pick-your-own basis and this has some appeal for tourists.
Personally, if I wanted to use bilberries in larger quantities, for example to make jam or a pie, I would cut them with whitecurrants, but then I have plenty in my garden, if I had to buy them, they also would be too expensive. The taste of blueberries is bland in comparison to their wild counterpart.
How to forage for bilberries
If you are now tempted to pick your own bilberries what is involved? Wellington boots and a stick are essential for me – everywhere that bilberries grow in Somerset is also prime habitat for adders. Wear old clothes that you don’t care too much about getting stained. Once home, I somehow always manage to walk one around the house before spotting the stains – but lemon juice does work wonders for removing the colour. Try to find bushes that are growing on a bank or hummock so that you don’t have to bend so far. As long as you are on common land there is no need to get the landowners permission to pick for your own consumption. Take punnets with secure handles – if you drop them it takes just as long to retrieve them up as to pick fresh ones. Once you have caught the bug you will probably want to buy a comb, although I think the ones sold in the UK are really for larger berries than bilberries. Whilst a comb is quicker you will get leaves and other debris that will need to be removed at some stage, although the right amount of breeze can help separate the leaves if you lay your crop out on an old tea-towel. I don’t wash the berries – they are too delicate.
For those harvesting a few ounces by hand for their own consumption, one of the best ways to eat them is to make a compote to top cheesecake or lemon posset. Only since I have bought a comb have I been able to pick more than a pound at a time to recreate the tart that I enjoyed in Alsace and which is my favourite recipe for them.