August 9, 2015 by Jean
One of the pleasures of late summer in Maine is native wild blueberries. These are not the big, fat, cultivated highbush blueberries that are typically sold in supermarkets; they are the much smaller lowbush blueberries of the plant Vaccinium augustifolium. I’m enough of a regional chauvinist to think these are the only blueberries worth eating.
For years I bought my blueberries from local farmstands or from the farmers’ market in one-quart containers, buying some extra quarts for the freezer. Then one year, a farmer from whom I had bought several quarts at the farmers’ market told me that she sold blueberries in 10-pound boxes from her farm. For the next several years, I drove 45 minutes north to the farm each August and bought two or three of these 10-pound boxes. I could not only eat blueberries to my heart’s content during the late summer, but freeze many quarts for use after the fresh berry season ended. (There are about 7 quarts in a 10-pound box.) The blueberries in the 10-pound boxes, like the ones sold in the quart containers, had already been cleaned and were ready to eat. All I had to do was transfer them from the boxes to smaller freezer containers.
This was bliss until I got a letter from my blueberry farmer telling me that the labor-intensive work of cleaning blueberries had gotten to be too much for her and that they were switching to wholesale only, selling uncleaned berries to retailers who would then clean them and package them (usually in quart boxes) for sale to consumers. It took me a few years to find another source of bulk blueberries, this time a farm about 2 hours away in the midcoast region of Maine. For the past several years, I have been driving out there in early August each year to buy 20-30 pounds of berries. The price for these berries is very good, but the berries still have some leaves, stems and unripened berries mixed in and need to be cleaned before they can be frozen. And cleaning them turns out to be a big job!
Last week, I drove out to the blueberry farm on Tuesday with my friend Sharon to pick up 50 pounds of berries – a 20-pound box for her and a 20-pound box plus a 10-pound box for me. On Tuesday evening, I began cleaning the berries and packaging them in 1-quart freezer bags. To clean the berries I would pour them into a big strainer that hangs over the kitchen sink, spray them with water, and then, one handful of berries at a time, pick out any stems, leaves or unripe berries, and transfer what was left in my hand to a clean container. After two evenings of this, I had finished cleaning the berries in the 10-pound box but had just begun the 20-pound box, and I realized that I needed to pick up the pace in order to finish the job before berries began to spoil.
Indeed, on the third day, when I set myself the goal of cleaning 6 quarts of blueberries, I found that berries that were already overripe when they were picked two days earlier had now split their skins and had to be discarded. By the fourth day of cleaning, I needed to feel every berry to make sure it was firm enough to preserve. By now, I was getting a lot of spoilage (probably about a quart altogether), and the process of cleaning was slower, taking about an hour of work for a quart of berries. By the fifth (and, thankfully, last!) day of cleaning blueberries, I was reduced to picking edible berries out of the pulpy remains at the bottom of the 10-pound box – work that was not just tedious but unpleasantly messy and that took two hours to yield a quart of berries for the freezer. At this point, of course, I was wondering why I hadn’t spent more time on cleaning berries the first two days when the berries were fresh and the work easier. The same two hours that it took to process one quart of blueberries at the end of the process would have yielded 4 quarts at the beginning.
The labor involved in cleaning blueberries has me reconsidering the higher price of cleaned berries. After I had already ordered my berries from the midcoast blueberry farm, I learned that my CSA was offering 10-pound boxes of cleaned berries at a price about 68% higher than what I paid for uncleaned berries. Would it be worth it? Next year, I plan to buy 20 pounds from the midcoast farm and 10 pounds from my CSA. This will reduce the amount of cleaning I need to do and allow me to check out the the quality of the cleaning and the berries for the higher-priced boxes. I also realize that I need to set aside at least four hours each day to process blueberries during the first two days after I pick them up. That will allow me to get most or all of them cleaned while they are still fresh, the work is easier, and wastage is much less.
I don’t regret buying blueberries in bulk. The price per quart is considerably less than buying them one quart at a time. And now that the work is done, I’m delighted to have a freezer jam-packed with quart bags of blueberries that will take me through the fall and winter and into next spring.