At the Farmers' Market: Blueberries

Ten years ago, the only blueberries consumers could purchase were trucked in from the East Coast; they were awful, lifeless, wooden facsimiles of the fragrant lovelies of the Northeast, sold at a premium to gullible shoppers willing to pay $5 or more for a half-pint of nothingness.

The reason for that was that blueberries simply don't do well in warm climates. They grow best in the woods of the colder climates, particularly from New Jersey up through Canada's Maritime Provinces. I have fond memories of childhood trips to Maine, picking wild blueberries from tiny plants that grew under the forest canopy near my relatives' homes on Penobscot Bay.

The kind of blueberries we picked were low-bush blueberries which, due to their semblance of ground cover, had to be picked by hand. Nearly all commercial varieties are high-bush blueberries, which allow at least some approximation of automation (or, at the very least, not back-breaking labor) during harvest.

Sometime in the very recent past, scientists started breeding heat-tolerant but infertile Vaccinium bushes (the genus of all blueberry plants) with heat-intolerant but productive high-bush blueberries. The result is a blueberry plant that produces enormous, sweet, slightly acidic berries. Those bushes are finally delivering measurable market yields, and we in Southern California are reaping the benefit.

While no one is going to mistake these berries for the tiny, incredibly fragrant wild blueberries of Nova Scotia or Massachusetts, the difference between these and the imported commercial harvests is amazing.

Prices have come down immensely: where a half-pint (3 or 4 oz.) of commercial Eastern blueberries still commands $3-$5 at the large chain markets, the going price on Saturday at the Irvine farmers' market, where eight separate vendors were selling them, including two dedicated solely to blueberries and one (Pure Land Farms from Temecula, at the furthest end of the market next to Sweredoski Farms) selling blueberry plants, was $10 for 18 oz.: just about half the price for immeasurably superior product.

Most people probably don't need instructions on what to do with blueberries, but if you're at a loss, make pancakes. Save two tablespoons of the dry mix before mixing in the liquid; toss the blueberries in the dry mix, then fold into the batter and use immediately.

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