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Whatever happened to the Bilberry?



I was remembering the bilberries I used to buy from the market in Rochdale, England in the early 70s and got a desire for a bilberry pie. Nowhere can I find anyone who sells them, except for Amazon who sell dried ones.

The little purple berries are about half the size of their cousin, the blueberry, but are packed with so much more flavour. There is nothing quite like it. Imagine a blueberry, then concentrate its flavour into a volume about one quarter its size, then double the flavour for good measure. You might then have a slight idea of the pleasure of eating bilberries.

They were made into pies, jams or stewed and served with ice cream or cream Mmmm, delicious. Their sweet tartness bursts on the tongue like nothing else. I’m sorry, my American friends, but the blueberry is NOT a substitute, but is bland, squishy and watery in comparison.

Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the occasional drink of blueberry juice or fresh blueberries in a fruit salad, it’s just when I think to compare them with the bilberry I feel disappointed. I’ve been searching websites for pictures of bilberries, but there is confusion here and all the ones I could find were actually of blueberries. Some even said they’re  the same fruit!

Why has this delicious little fruit fallen out of favour? Who knows. I suspect it’s something to do with the low-growing habit of the plant. Gathering bilberries is back-breaking work, and not one that many people would relish except for gathering a few wild ones for their own consumption.

They grow on heath and moorland. wild country where few go these days, when people don’t move more than 50 yards from their cars and think themselves adventurous for driving up into the hills and walking so far. So people don’t see these little beauties. Anyway, we have grown so far from nature that unless something comes in a neat package from a supermarket, many are afraid to gather the wild bounty of our hedgerows. (I don’t see many people gathering blackberries from the hedges or picking mushrooms from the fields these days.)

I’ve picked wild stuff since I was a child. Going mushrooming was a delight. we quickly learned to recognise a delicious field mushroom, and to eat them fresh for breakfast, with egg and bacon, well, it makes my mouth water just to think of them. They, like the bilberries, burst with lovely mushroomy flavour.

To make a pie with blackberries you’ve gathered yourself is a pleasure. To be out in the countryside, listening to the birds singing and watching the butterflies and bees–there’s nothing like it, quite apart from the health benefits of the walk.

I do see people gathering blackberries, but they are picking them from the roadside with lorries, cars and buses hurtling by and throwing up dust to coat them, Not to mention those lower down that I’ve seen people picking, just at dog pee level.

I’ve picked elderberries and made wine and jam from them, and the fluffy white umberellas of blossom also makes a lovely cordial as well as elderflower wine.

I’ve digressed from my original thought about bilberries. I long to eat another bilberry pie before I die, but they seem to be a forgotten fruit. Even Word is putting a red squiggly line underneath it everytime I write ‘bilerry’, but it doesn’t under ‘blueberry’.

Amazon’s dried bilberries, at nearly £11 for 250g seems rather a lot. and one of their products is called ‘blueberry juice (bilberry), which isn’t the same thing at all. The only review of the dried bilberries says they are horrible.

I’ve looked on the websites of all the major British supermarkets and none of them stock even jars of the fruit, even though I’ve come across websites that say they do.

So if anyone out there knows of somewhere I can get them, please let me know. I’ll be forever grateful.