Delve into the blue as local berries come of age

Delve into the blue as local berries come of age
by Fred Decker

Back in the 1930s, when Rupert Hawkins began raising blueberries for sale on his Pennfield property, he would have been hard-pressed to foresee how much his modest enterprise would grow.

Laare Rowan photo
Blueberry Maple Syrup is a great way to combine two of our finest local ingredients.

"He wasn't one of your big dreamers, " says his grandson Russ. "He was just a guy trying to make a living. He raised a little beef, he cut firewood, and he just happened to have fields that had blueberries growing in them, so he started selling blueberries, as well."

The family business has grown and prospered mightily since those pioneering days, when grandfather Rupert was one of the first of a handful of commercial blueberry growers in the area. Today, Russ Hawkins and his wife Donna run the bustling business, while other family members stay involved as growers. Demand is high, with blueberries currently riding a wave of popularity as a top source of healthy anti-oxidants.

While Rupert started out picking quart boxes of blueberries by hand, his descendants now have the capacity to process nearly a half-million pounds of blueberries in any given season - provided, of course, that the fields and weather co-operate.

Fortunately, this summer's unusually grey and cloudy skies won't affect the blueberry crop, says Russ.

"We're looking at a pretty good crop this year; not a bumper crop, but decent. The only thing is, we can't actually harvest when it's pouring rain. The berries are fine, though I'd just like to see some sun to help them firm up."

Hawkins' father, Ken, opened first roadside blueberry stand in the Pennfield area in the mid-1980s. At the time, Donna recalls, the operation was pretty simple.

"When they first started up, there was just one blower and then three people picking over the berries by hand."

She chuckles when I ask how that compares to their current business.

"Oh my word," she says, thinking for a moment. "Well, we've got two shifts on the freezing line, and two fresh-pack lines, plus the staff at the stand itself."

The fresh line is for the absolute best fruit, says Donna, who rhapsodizes about their standard of perfection: none but the biggest, finest, roundest, most beautiful berries evenly covered with the signature pale-blue blush that makes the wild berries so striking make it to the Hawkins fruit stand.
Of course, most of the berries - however beautiful - are destined for the frozen line, simply because they are perishable. Those that can't be sold fresh go into the frozen line, where they are individually quick frozen (IQF) for year-round sale. The rapid freezing process results in a high-quality product that can be used in the place of fresh blueberries in most recipes.

Clear some space in your freezer, people - you'll really appreciate those berries when February rolls around. But first, pick up a box of the fresh ones and enjoy them at their best: ripe, local, and in season.

Blueberry Maple Syrup

This is a great way to combine two of our finest local ingredients. It is simple, quick and very tasty. Try it over your favourite pancakes or waffles. The syrup is especially good on pancakes made with whole wheat, multigrain or buckwheat flour as blueberries complement earthy flavours.

2 cups local blueberries, either fresh or frozen

1 cup maple syrup, preferably a lower grade

Warm spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, etc.) to taste (optional)

Use your heaviest-bottomed saucepan to make the syrup. Pour in one cup of maple syrup, preferably one of the lower grades, as they are darker and have a stronger maple flavour, so they'll stand up better to the blueberries than lighter grades. Add the blueberries and the spices (if you are using any). Bring the pot to a simmer, and continue cooking until the liquid has reduced by about half. You'll be left with about 1-1 cups of richly flavoured syrup.

The selection of spices for the syrup is very personal. Any warm spice will work: cinnamon, clove, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, and so on. Most people I know like to blend them (some even use pumpkin pie spice mix), but I prefer to use just one spice in any given batch. My favourites are ginger, which I think complements maple well, and cardamom, which has a nice hint of pine that works well with the woodsy-ness of the berries and syrup.

Want to know how to make instant blueberry sorbet? Drop me a line at the restaurant, and I'll be happy to explain it to you.

Fred Decker is the chef/owner of The Mariner's Table in Chance Harbour.

SOURCE: New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (Saint John, NB) - August 16, 2008.