There’s more to blueberries than muffins – Peter Henshaw visits the Dorset Blueberry Company to find out more
Pictures: Peter Henshaw/Dorset Blueberry Co
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought of blueberries as being quintessentially American. Maybe that’s thanks to the ubiquitous muffin. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be, because today they’re grown all over eastern Europe, as well as the States, and in a corner of Dorset, they’ve been cultivated, sold and eaten for over 50 years.
David Trehane is a third generation blueberry man. ‘My grandfather saw an ad in Farmers Chronicle in 1949,’ he told me. ‘A friendly parson wanted to promote blueberries, and was offering free plants. Grandfather applied (only four people did), took on 100 plants, and that’s how it started.’ It was ten years before David Trehane Snr grew a commercial crop, but his family have been cultivating blueberries near Wimborne ever since, and an acre of that original planting is still there, and producing a crop. Those original plants hailed from British Columbia, but they thrived in the sandy, acidic, well drained soil of this part of Dorset, and the Trehanes now grow 25 acres, plus another five for pick your own, a flourishing business in August.
Grandfather Trehane retired in 1968, but it’s still a real family business – his son Jeremy looks after the PYO side, while daughter Jennifer (an expert on camellias as well) attends to the cultivation, along with her son David, who with wife Julia manages the farm shop.
Mention blueberry muffins to David Trehane, and he virtually grimaces. ‘Muffins are boring – we don’t do those any more. Any baked mass produced product like that tends to use smaller imported blueberries, ours are quite different.’ It turns out there’s a lot more to blueberries than muffins. Cakes, flapjacks and pies…well, you’d expect those, but blueberries can also form a complementary sauce for pork, duck or venison. They make juice, jam and barbecue sauce. They go well with ricotta, goats cheese or a decent piece of cheddar; they’ll add zest to a fruit salad and and have even been used in fruity liquers. And the bottom line is that the dried variety are happy anywhere that a raisin is. They make good smoothies too.
Maybe that’s why the demand for the little blue fruits has been rocketing recently. ‘Ten years ago, it was just us in the UK,’ David told me. ‘Now there are 20-30 growers, and lots more in North America and Eastern Europe, Poland especially. Demand has increased 150% or more over the past five years.We used to supply all the blueberries for M & S, but now we simply can’t grow them fast enough to keep up.’
It looks like a lot of this explosion in blueberry demands is down to health. ‘They have the highest antioxidant count of any fruit or vegetable,’ said David. They’re good for the eyes, because they strengthen the retina, and bomber pilots during World War II were fed bilberry essence (blueberries equal bilberries – they’re the same thing) to improve their vision. The latter sounds like the one about Spitfire pilots gorging on carrots to optimise their eyesight, but apparently it’s absolutely true. They’re packed with Vitamin C, and being good for circulation, can help arthritis and varicose veins.
In short, blueberries are jolly good for you, on top of which they taste nice and are dead convenient to eat – no peeling, no stoning or seeding, just pop into the mouth, and you’re away.
There isn’t of course just one type of blueberry – like any other fruit, there’s a whole selection of different varieties, and which one suits depends on what sort of fruit you want (from sweet to sharp), where it’s being grown, and when. Northern Highbush is the most widely grown, and there are over a hundred varieties of this one alone. ‘Duke’ for example, is described as a sturdy plant which fruits early and is resistant to frost; ‘Patriot’ is ‘fairly vigorous’ and more tolerant of heavier, wetter soils; and ‘Chandler’ produces the world’s biggest blueberries!
The Dorset Blueberry Co grow a dozen different varieties, some of them originals from that first crop of Grandfather Trehane’s, but they’re constantly on the lookout for new strains. ‘We cultivate a selection, because they fruit at different times, which makes harvesting easier,’ said David, ‘but new ones are coming along all the time. You’re always looking for a new cross that will give better yields, better flavours and be more resistant to disease, that are easy to pick and adaptable. We’re a trial site for a New Zealand programme, and we’ll soon be working with SmithKline Beecham, who are interested in blueberries for juicing.’
Like any crop, blueberries demand work all the year round. The plants need to be pruned in the winter, to encourage new growth. They’ll flower in the spring, the bushes exploding with cowslip-like blooms. But even this can do with some help. The Trehanes have their own beekeeper, and ‘hives and hives’ of bees, to do their pollination thing. The main harvest time is in July/August, when temporary pickers come and stay on site. Anyone can apply, but according to David, most of the pickers are from Eastern Europe – ‘They’re fantastic, very reliable.’ Wherever they’re from, the pickers are kept busy, with around 20 tonnes of fruit produced a year. And whoever picks it, the majority of the fruit – 85-90% by weight – is organic.
These are sold fresh, dried, in pies or puddings, and it might well have stayed that way, had it not been for a disastrous hailstorm in 2000. ‘It destroyed 60% of the crop,’ said David. ‘We’d spent a lot of money on a new packing shed, and it could have killed the business. But we couldn’t let all that fruit just rot on the ground, so we froze as much as we could and my wife baked 6000 blueberry muffins.’ Despite the current Trehane aversion to these sweet, fluffy cakes, seven years ago they were the quickest way to turn the fruit into a saleable product.
Anyway, they were left with the problem of what to do with the surplus, and that’s when someone hit on the idea of making them into something else – juice, jam and sauce – that’s ‘added value’ in modern business-speak. Whatever you call it, the Trehane’s blueberry jam certainly justifies its existence. They’ve been at pains to differentiate it from ultra-sweet mass produced jams by adding lemon juice, which reinforces the blueberry flavour. That one’s even being exported to the United States!
You get the impression though, that the Dorset Blueberry Company sees local markets as more important than high-profile exports. ‘We do all the Hampshire farmers’ markets,’ David told me, ‘and many of the Dorset ones as well.’ The Sunday morning I spoke to him, he’d already been around three of them, checking how the sellers were doing. Unfortunately, torrential rain was keeping people indoors.
‘We go all over the place,’ he went on, ‘up to London as well. Farmers markets don’t always work – I remember a market in Ealing didn’t work for us because the locals couldn’t afford a blueberry pie that cost £5.00. On the other hand, we’ve always done well in Winchester, and in Petersfield – we’ve developed quite a following in some places. I think being a local supplier, selling locally, is really important, maybe more important in some people’s eyes than being organic. They don’t want produce that’s been flown in – it’s a cliché about cutting food miles, but it’s true.’
But they haven’t cut out supermarkets on principle. The Trehanes were Marks and Spencers’ sole blueberry supplier before the current explosion in demand, and still work closely with this recently revived big name, which now seems to make far more profit out of blueberries than shirts. They’re also going into Sainsburys Organics range this summer: ‘It’s a limited market still, so that suits us.’
But there’s no substitute for cutting out the middleman and selling direct to the consumer, so last spring they opened Littlemoor Farm Shop, just south of Wimborne. In August a coffee shop was added, complete with wood burning stove, which makes it a particuarly cosy retreat for coffee on a damp December Sunday.
Naturally, the shop sells everything that the Dorset Blueberry Company makes and grows (and I can particularly recommend the shortbread), but it also majors on other local produce, unlike some farm shops, whose farm/local connection is tenuous in the extreme. Meat – joints, sausages, mince – comes from Cranborne, just over the hill; the milk from near Dorset’s county town of Dorchester; and all the cheese is from Hampshire and Dorset (usually via contacts made at farmers markets); peek in at a window as you walk in, and there’s the bakery, preparing another batch of blueberry pies. The closest thing you’ll find to an import is Isle of Wight garlic. And one other thing – there’s not a blueberry muffin in sight.
(by Curtis Stone, BBC Saturday Kitchen)
Preparation time: Less than 30 mins
Cooking time: 10-30 mins
4 eggs, yolks and whites separated
255g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
extra blueberries to garnish
Place the egg yolks, ricotta and milk in a large mixing bowl, and stir.
Sieve in the flour, baking powder and salt, and mix well.
Whisk the egg whites to a soft peak. Add a third of the egg whites to the ricotta mixture and stir in to loosen the mixture. Then gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
Add one third of the blueberries to the batter, and stir in.
Place the remaining blueberries in a small pan with the sugar and half the butter and simmer for a couple of minutes so that some of the berries have collapsed.
Melt the remaining butter in a frying pan and add a ladle of the batter to the pan. Once the pancake bubbles a bit, after about 1-2 minutes, turn the pancake over and cook on the other side. Repeat until all the batter is used up.
Serve by placing three pancakes on top of each other and drizzle some of the blueberry compôte over the pancakes and plate. Garnish with a scoop of crème fraiche and a few fresh blueberries.
BLUEBERRY CHEESECAKE GATEAU
Preparation time: Less than 30 mins
Cooking time: 30 mins to 1 hour
255g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
225g caster sugar
225g butter (softened)
4 large eggs
1 tbsp milk
For the icing and decoration
400g light soft cheese
grated zest of 2 limes and the juice of 1 lemon
110g icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Grease a deep 18cm round tin, and line the base with greaseproof paper.
Put the flour, baking powder, sugar, butter and eggs into a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on slow speed until everything is mixed together. Increase the speed and whisk for 2 minutes. Stir in the milk.
Spoon the mixture into the tin and level the top, bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the centre of the cake springs back when lightly pressed, and the mixture is starting to come away from the sides of the tin.
Leave the cake in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn out on to a wire rack and leave to cool before decorating. This cake keeps in an airtight tin for 2-3 days.
To decorate, split into three layers.
Beat the cheese until soft, then beat in the lime zest, juice and icing sugar. Sandwich the cake back together with two thirds of the cheese mixture, and spread the rest on the top.
7. Arrange the blueberries in tight circles around the top of the cake, starting in the centre. Keeps for one day in the fridge.
Grow Your Own
If you fancy growing your own blueberries, the Dorset Blueberry Company will happily sell you the plants (at the farm shop or online) and give advice. Blueberry plants can be sited in open garden, containers or raised beds, but a high bush plant should be at least 30cm tall, and showing good vigour. Crucially, the soil must be pH 4.5-5.5, as blueberries like a good acidic soil – that’s why the commercial growers are clustered around certain parts of Dorset, Norfolk and Suffolk. The best flavoured fruit benefits from full sun, and some shelter from wind, though most varieties will survive down to –12 degrees C for short periods. Allow 1.5 metres diameter around each high bush plant, and about half that around lower varieties, and plant in a hole 30cm deep. Blueberry bushes need a good soaking (but not flooding) rather than a genteel sprinkle with the watering can. Prune in mid-winter, and keep the surroundings well weeded – hand weeding is the safest and greenest way. At the moment in the UK, blueberries rarely suffer from pests and diseases, but that tempting fruit has to be protected against birds.
The Dorset Blueberry Company
PYO: 01202 873490
Reading: Jennifer Trehane, ‘Blueberries, Cranberries and other Vaccinium’, Royal Horticultural Society Plant Collector Guide, 2004