Today, a relative of the blueberry plant is the oldest living thing on earth, estimated by botanists to be more than 13,000 years old.
Skipping ahead from Adam and Eve, it is recorded that Virgil and Pliny recongized blueberries. However, they didn’t call them blueberries – they used the term which still identifies the blueberry plant, VACCINIUM, a word rooted in the Latin “vaccinus” meaning cow. The connection between cow and blueberry is indeed obscure, but perhaps ancient cows were blueberry eaters.
Like the world’s bears, they probably knew that blueberries were a feast, a delicacy. Wild bears will eat nothing except the succulent, juicy blueberries when they are in season. It has been documented that they will travel, with an empty stomach, from ten to fifteen miles per day to sniff out a blueberry patch.
Blueberries grow in many places around the world. Cousins of our native North American blueberries live in Asia, Europe and South America, from the tropics to the land of the Eskimos. But our blueberries did not travel from far-away places to get here. They are not escapees from early Colonial gardens. Nor are they immigrants whose seed came over on the Mayflower.
Blueberries were here when the first wave of settlers arrived in what was to become America. Early explorers noted Wild Blueberries on their expeditions. In 1615, Samuel de Champlain saw Indians along Lake Huron harvesting Wild Blueberries. These were dried, beaten into a pulp/powder and combined with cornmeal, honey and water to make a pudding called “Sautauthig”. Lewis and Clark, while on an expedition found that Indians smoked Wild Blueberries to preserve them for winter use. A meal served to them by the Indians had Wild Blueberries pounded into the meat — which was then smoked and dried.
The American Indian held the wild blueberry in very high esteem, due to the fact that the blossom end of each blueberry forms a five points star. It was believed the “Great Spirit” sent these star berries to relieve the hunger of children during a famine. Indians also used blueberries for medicinal purposes and made a strong aromatic tea from the root. It was used as a relaxant during childbirth. Early medical books show this same tea was used by wives of settlers during labor. Blueberry juice was used for “old coughs” and tea made from Wild Blueberry leaves was believed to be a good tonic to help purify the blood.
The small Wild Blueberry, to the original settlers, was less foreign to them than the land. Some had known a similar berry in Scotland, the blaeberry. Blaeberry jam, the story goes, was invented in the court of James V, who became King of Scots in 1513. His French wife brought her own cooks when she arrived at the castle in Scotland. They harvested the local wild blaeberries and in typical inventive French gourmet fashion, devised a delicacy which still delights Scottish palates.
English immigrants related the New World blueberry to their whortleberries: the Danes, to bilberries; the Swedes to their blåbär. People from northern Germany recognized their bickberren; those from southern Germany, blauberren. Later arrivals from Europe, such as the Russians, also had a frame of reference for these berries whose blue reflected the promising blue skies of the New World. The first commercial venture involved canning Wild Blueberries for the military.
ICE CREAM PIE with WARM BLUEBERRY SAUCE
- 1 store-bought refrigerated pie-crust
- 2 cups fresh blueberries
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 pints vanilla ice cream
- special equipment: four 4-inch tart pans
- Heat oven to 375° F. Coat the bottom and sides of the tart pans with cooking spray, vegetable oil, or butter.
- Divide the pie crust into 4 portions and roll them out so they’re slightly larger than the pans. Press the dough into the pans. Run a rolling pin over the tops to trim the excess dough. Line the dough with parchment paper or foil, fitting it up the sides. Fill with pie weights, dried beans, or uncooked rice. Place the pans on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the weights and paper and let cool.
- Meanwhile, in a saucepan, over medium heat, cook the berries, sugar, water, cornstarch, and cinnamon until the sauce thickens slightly, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Remove the crusts from pans and transfer to serving plates. Place 1/2 pint of ice cream in each tart. Spoon some sauce on top.