I’m not in the habit of accosting strange women in the middle of the countryside but she did have a comb in her hand. A bilberry comb. She looked like she knew how to use it, which is more than I did with mine, so I wanted advice.
If she was surprised she didn’t let on. Put it down to the camaraderie of the hedgerow or, in this case, the moors around Sheffield. This is the bilberry season and there must be hundreds of tons of the fruit just waiting to be picked. But isn’t it a bugger doing it?
The bilberry, smaller than a blueberry, is a small purple-black berry with a sharp juiciness. That’s the good news. Sadly, picking them by hand is a tiresome business. The bushes grow low and there’s too much back-breaking bending down so I usually kneel or loll and pick everything around me, trying to ignore the flies and midges. Trouble is, this way I look like I’m up to no good. And it’s slow: after 50 minutes I had barely more than a few ounces.
Last year I bought a bilberry comb, convinced I’d be able to pick pounds in minutes. All I got were twigs and leaves and the odd berry crushed between the tines. Of course I was doing it all wrong, ploughing the comb through the bushes without any finesse with one hand, holding a plastic box to collect the ‘harvest’ in the other.
As I was shown, it needs a light touch, dipping the comb in from the top of the plant, holding a branch with one hand while raking it with the comb. This meant abandoning my plastic ice cream tub and letting the berries collect inside the comb. There’s a ledge which acts as a one-way trap so they can’t easy fall out.
I was now collecting berries much, much faster than before but also little bits of leaves and twig – a job to sort through back home. These combs, used by the French and Scandinavians are a recent import because you never used to see them, now everyone has them.
There don’t seem to be as many pickers these days, mainly middle-aged and elderly, for the young are not so keen on foraging – anything – as they should. I’ve come back to bilberries. Picking expedititions were fractious when the kids were young as they soon got bored – or bitten. Later on, wet weekends and family holidays got in the way. Now I’m retired I have all the time in the world.
The bilberry is also known as the blueberry, whortleberry, whinberry, winberry, windberry, wimberry, myrtle blueberry and fraughan, while in North America, where it is bigger (naturally!) it is called the blueberry – or huckleberry. Now I didn’t know that.
People mostly use bilberries for jam or in pies. The French make a liqueur, crème de myrtille, while I once came home from Italy with a bottle of fierce bilberry flavoured grappa. It lasted a long time.
My huckleberry friend and I talked about how we were going to use the harvest. She planned a fruit salad, not a pie, as she was cutting down on pastry. I reckoned that as they were so much trouble to pick I didn’t want the reward to be over in a mouthful so would be making a bilberry gin. Then I would drain the gin-soaked boozy fruit and make a pie, jam or chutney, as I do with my damsons, getting twice the value.
Here and there were clumps of bright red berries on bushes with similar but greener leaves to the bilberries. They taste sweet and I think are the cowberry or bearberry (and a lot of other folk names as well). I picked them, too.
It took ages to clean the berries back home, Put them in water and the berries float along with the detritus, unlike blackberries. I had nearly a pound to put in a large Kilner jar with four tablespoons of sugar (60g) and a 70cl bottle of Aldi’s prizewinning Oliver Cromwell gin for £9.99. By Christmas I shall have a flavoured gin with a gorgeous colour. Hopefully it will be better than the elderflower gin which faintly pongs of swimming baths.
I went back again and collected enough bilberries for a bilberry, blackberry and apple pie, made entirely of foraged fruit. You won’t want to see a picture of it as there are plenty of pies on this site already!