The Wild Blueberries of Prince Edward Island
Our SUV is already deep inside the interior of a large, rolling field before I realize that we’ve reached the blueberries. They hug the terrain and rise less than a foot from the ground, and extend around us for acres in a wave of uninterrupted shrubbery that seems to go right up to the forest edge.
Prince Edward Island is the kind of place that stays with you. After even a short visit you’ll find yourself having sudden, quiet flashbacks brought on by even the briefest of stimuli. A jog along a waterside running path conjures up visions of sea spray and dark, shellfish-lined Atlantic depths. Walk in a park and you’ll find yourself yearning for sloping hills, white birch, and tender, verdant fiddlehead ferns. Go to a coffee shop and eat a blueberry muffin and you’ll find the promise of a bright, cold Canadian spring, and a brief but gentle summer that quickly fades into autumn.
PEI produces world-class food, including 25% of all of the potatoes consumed in Canada. While world-famous mussels have put PEI on the map, and oyster and lobster harvesting make the island a delicious place to visit, it’s the wild blueberries that prove to be the most ephemeral and hard to find.
It’s important to understand that these are not your typical blueberries. Camping, wandering, and general luck have exposed a great many people to the welcome sight of a large, fruit-laden blueberry bush. The thing is, even though that bush may be in the wild, it’s almost certainly of the “cultivated” variety. Truly wild blueberries are harder to find than you might realize.
Unlike the large bushes people typically associate with this particular fruit, and the large, plump berries that look so pleasing in the store but can be insipid or overly soft and sweet, true wild blueberries are small, compact, and deeply flavorful. These are the berries that more often than not will show up in commercial baked goods. Their small size, which carries far less moisture than cultivated blueberries, makes them ideal for baking because their color doesn’t bleed (who doesn’t have memories of splitting open a muffin only to find the interior is dyed indigo?). Their flavor is also superior, and they’re said to be more healthful (although that’s a claim bandied about rather carelessly these days).
Like ramps, a wild onion indigenous to the American Northeast, wild blueberries are intrinsically resistant to cultivation. While large “cultivated” blueberry bushes can be transplanted with some degree of impunity, wild blueberries spread through a rhizome, an interconnected, underground stem that puts out shoots in a large radius. Wild blueberry bushes appear to be one continuous area of growth because, quite literally, that’s what it is: a large, underground, fruit-bearing organism that isn’t amenable to moving.
Certain challenges go along with the agriculture of a wild product, particularly for companies who sell genuine wild blueberries. Because the fields are naturally occurring there’s no real way to modify their boundaries, or, short of building roads into them, to make them easily accessible. Also, wild blueberries are harvestable only every other year, while cultivated blueberries produce an annual yield.
On PEI the producer of wild blueberries is Wyman’s of Maine, who are seeking to give a glimpse of their facilities (which in Canada is known as Wyman’s of Prince Edward Island) and to sell the gospel of wild blueberries. They’ve invited me here, along with a number of other food writers, bloggers, and photographers.
It’s an interesting pitch, in part because of the company, which puts a good amount of effort into raising and harvesting the fruit, doesn’t actually do all that much to the product. The factory is immaculate, minus the occasional spray of blueberries on the floor, and the fruit is frozen after passing through a series of chunking, rattling, vibrating machines. Much like fish caught and frozen on large ships, processing is more minimal than people would realize.
Wild blueberries are also by necessity pesticide free. The rhizome tends to absorbs toxins, which are then spread to the berries. The blueberries are pollinated largely by bees, which almost anybody in North America can tell you are facing a steep decline for reasons that are still yet to be concretely determined. Wyman’s used to ship bees in as needed but now maintains its own hives. It’s a tricky process that adds an additional layer to the maintenance of an already finicky plant.
It’s a strangely compelling product though, considering it’s a relatively humble berry. They don’t look startlingly different from those you can find fresh in the market (wild blueberries are almost always sold fresh-frozen), but their flavor is sharper and more intense. The minimal processing also lends some authenticity to the claim that they are, perhaps, a more “natural” product than cultivated blueberries. You can’t move them, you can’t make them grow faster, and you can’t make them grow larger. The wild blueberry is what it is, and there’s some strange beauty in that.
Later, after leaving the island, I find a dented beer cap that I’d secreted away in a jacket pocket. It’s a remnant from a windswept dusk bonfire, and it reads “this is an island of secrets” inside of its bent crown. It’s a clever bit of marketing to be sure, but it’s hard to shake the sense that there’s some truth to it. PEI has built a nest in my mind, a pensive hive of interconnected underground tendrils carrying the scent of wood smoke and the memory of rolling hills sloping to the restless sea.
First published October 2016