Whenever I see the bilberry mentioned online or in books, it often seems to be preceded by the word ‘humble’. The humble bilberry. And I can never work out why, because surely something which isn’t generally commercially available, which likes to grow in inaccessible places, which has a famously short season and is terribly laborious and messy to pick, staining everything it touches with its black bull’s blood juice – surely that is the opposite of humble? A demanding, awkward little fruit.
For anyone unfamiliar with this hardy wild delicacy, the bilberry is a sort of miniature blueberry that grows on squat bushes in the moorlands and woods of northern places. I’ve also heard them called blaeberries, and seen them appearing on menus in Scandinavia as whortleberries.
In my granny’s day, you used to be able to buy big jars of Polish bilberries from supermarkets, but I’ve never seen these, and I wonder if it’s just us who’ve gone off them, or whether the Poles have too. Perhaps I should have a nose round some Polski skleps and see what I can find. Anyway, the only way I know of to taste them is to find some on the moors and pick them yourself. [Update Jan 2016: my stepfather has discovered a Polish man selling the canned variety from a stall in Leeds market!]
Sometime in August is usually their season, but blink and you’ll miss them. There’s no reliable ripening time, so you just have to keep your eyes open when you’re out and hope for the best. Picking them is tedious too, and the most efficient method is my mum’s old trick of taking a couple of small boys with you and selling it to them as a really fun game.
As luck would have it, I came across a late season crop just last Friday. I’d been strolling over the top of Goathland Moor, past the bronze age stone circle and burial ground at Simon Howe and down to the Roman road of Wade’s Causeway on Wheeldale Moor, then as I cut back east through a wide Forestry Commission plantation, I came upon a big area of bilberry bushes among the ranks of conifers. Maybe it was the dark, sheltered conditions, or the lack of people, but after half an hour combing my way through the September spiderwebs I had purple-black hands and a sandwich box full of berries.
Some people make jams or sauces from them, but for my money the best way to eat bilberries is to pile them into a dish, scoop some sugar on top, then stick on a simple crumble topping (just butter, flour and soft brown sugar – none of these chewy, oaty versions) and bake it ’til the juice bleeds through.
I think I might have had my last purple tongue of the season, but there’s always next summer.