I’d heard that there’s wild blueberries here in the Alps towards the end of the summer, so when I stumbled upon some blueberry-looking bushes in the forest, I was excited to think that soon I could stop spending half of my salary on berries from the supermarket.
But my newfound foraging obsession has been on the verge of spiraling out of control. Last week when I complained about feeling sick, my friend commented that I probably poisoned myself from some crazy thing I ate in the forest. My mind flashed back to one of the first days I was living in my new house, when I was rolling in a nearby meadow and ecstatically tasting every wild flower and plant around me. “This one’s not bad!” I’d exclaim, newly-enlightened city girl, thinking I’d be all set just foraging everything, forever. I thought my Swiss friends would think I was really cool and earthy, but they looked at me like I was 100% crazy. Now when I’m not feeling great I wonder what beautiful alpine flower I’ve eaten might kill me, so if I don’t start being more cautious my hypochondria might get serious, and also I might die.
So I noticed that these berries didn’t come in bunches like those I’ve picked in the U.S., which I thought was a bit strange. I squished one and saw that the inside was dark blue. The inside of a generic blueberry is more beige-green, hardly blue at all (there aren’t many foods in nature that are naturally blue, are there?!), so I got a bit scared and left the berries alone.
But later I found out that they’re edible. My friend told me that they’re blueberries. They’re everywhere and super ripe, so I picked a bunch of them, and they are delicious and taste like blueberries. But I was still curious about the differences in color and plant structure. This is one of those things that I love about cross-continental travel; comparing flora and fauna. You find some things that are totally alien, some things that you’d find at home, too, and then some things that are similar but slightly different in a way that reminds you how cool evolution is.
I’d always thought that blueberries were native to North America, and it turns out I was right (thanks, internet!). The ‘blueberry’ that we buy in the store is actually a hybrid of three native North American species. Technically the berries I found here aren’t blueberries. They’re bilberries. They’re relatives of the blueberry, but native to Central and Northern Europe. Unlike blueberries they grow as a single fruit. They’re also much darker inside, as they contain four times more anthocyanins, a type of pigment, than blueberries do. And apparently the more anthocyanins, the more antioxidants! Blueberries have tons of antioxidants, but bilberries have even more. The pigment is dark and beautiful, and covers your fingers after you pick them, and soaks into your whipped cream in your tarte aux myrtilles, which I’d been making and eating at my winter job from bilberries for two years without knowing it (because apparently they freeze very well too!).
Bilberries also give you night vision. That’s right. Well, not according to scientists (i.e. no studies have proven this) but according to British WWII pilots who reported awesome night vision after eating Bilberry jam, yes. And also the fact that anthocyanins boost production of rhodospin, which helps the eye adapt to light changes. I believe it.
So if bilberries are so awesome, why do they sell blueberries in the grocery store (even here) instead of some domesticated form of bilberry? Apparently they’re extremely difficult to cultivate, as well as more delicate and difficult to transport. You could buy them for 25 euro at a gourmet store, or just go out and pick them yourself. Here in Switzerland, as well as in several other European countries, it’s considered an ‘everyman’s right’ to pick them, regardless of who owns the land. And they’re used all over Europe for pies, jams, liqueurs, juices, and even soups.
Because during my research I saw this photo on Wikipedia of a blueberry muffin, which is described as “un classique de la pâtisserie américaine”, I started to feel all proud and excited and hungry. It’s a seriously boring blueberry muffin in that photo, but we all know they can be so much better. So I decided to make a bilberry muffin. The internet is already drowning in food blogs so I’ll spare you a recipe; suffice it to say I used this one, because I love her, and they were delicious and fluffy, and prettier than the Franco-Wikipedian version.
Instead of a recipe I’d probably steal from someone else’s blog anyway, here’s a muffin-making soundtrack, compiled by me. It’s mid-summer and it’s (sometimes) sunny and there’s berries, so dance around the kitchen in a ridiculous apron with the doors and windows open and make stuff.