The Blueberry Patch

The great thing about peach and nectarine season is that it comes cheek by jowl with blueberry season.  Is there anything better than peach and blueberry pie, or crisp, or cobbler, or slump, or fool, or grunt or on your granola with yogurt in the morning?  How often can you have as many blueberries as you really want? 


The best way to get as many blueberries as I really want (many quarts anyways) is to put on my berry-picking hat and get out and pick them.  The Blueberry Patch on Old US-12 outside Grass Lake is the only place I know of that has organically grown blueberries. At $3.50 a pound, they're not the cheapest but you'll be getting more than just berries.  Now being touted as a "superfood," blueberries are one of only a few fruits (including cranberries and pawpaws) that are native to North America. At the Blueberry Patch, their 3 acres of 1000, net-covered, 7-foot tall blueberry bushes are exceedingly prolific. According to owner and Grizzly Adams look-alike, Steve Toth, the bushes are over 40 years old.  


Part of the charm of going out to the Blueberry Patch is getting to interact a bit with Steve. With his long gray beard, wild hair, and booming voice, he's kind of a character and he'll definitely tell your kids some crazy blueberry stories.  When you get to the Blueberry Patch you'll find a picnic table surrounded by bent-twig furniture under a large, shady tree and, following the directions on the sign, you ring a large handbell to get some attention. Steve trundles out to get you set up with a bucket, a belt, and some bug spray.  He'll make sure you know how to recognize a ripe blueberry, addressing you with old-fashioned politesse as "My Friend," and then off you go.   


What I've learned in the few visits I've made is that Steve has a huge cane labeled "The Ugly Stick," that he and his brother make the bent twig furniture (out of blueberry branches I think), and that their main business is dismantling and re-purposing the wood from the area's oldest barns.  


When I went out to pick berries last week Steve had a piece of white pine board  2" thick and 17" wide that came from a barn almost 200 years old.  He said the board came from a tree that was over 25' in diameter and was probably over 1000 years old when it was cut down.  According to Steve, Michigan's trees rivaled the California redwoods in size and age. He says that in the 1800s there were trees here that were as old as 3000 years.  By the 1850s, they had all been cut down as loggers sold the timber and settlers cleared the land to build their farms. Some of those trees went into the first barns that were built in Michigan, with timbers the likes of which we'll never see made again.  That's why Steve and his brother take apart old barns and use the wood for mantlepieces, furniture, flooring....He'll take you out to their barn to show you examples of the oldest wood you've ever seen if you're the least bit interested. 


It's strange to imagine a Michigan covered with primordial forest, with trees thousands of years old. I wish I could have seen that, even one tree like that. But the people who settled this place cut down every single one of those trees. And then killed every passenger pigeon and wolverine. When Wendell Berry says "We are living even now among punishments and ruins,"  I think this is what he is talking about.  


If there hadn't been those greedy lumber barons, there would have been others. There are certainly others still around now - intent on mining the last great wilderness of the Upper Peninsula.  I think about my grandmother's story about living as a little girl in a house during the Great Depression that had no basement, just a cold, cold floor and no plumbing - when she and her 4 siblings had pneumonia and flu and rheumatic fever all in succession.  A time when 10 people in the family lived off beans and potatoes gleaned from a farmer's field.  We'll never see primordial forests again, but the specter of hunger like that seems a bit closer these days. 


What would it be like here now if we had forests 3000 years old? Is it maudlin or worse to wonder what the future will be like when the people profiting from extracting our resources have used the world up and the rest of us have condoned it? 


The only thing I've figured out so far is that everything is connected. That thing about "If you want peace, work for justice."  To get a world with real food for everyone, it seems like we have to start growing it, eating it, asking for it and buying it. Finding out what our local and national governments are doing about it.   


So I pick organic blueberries, as many as I can, to put in my freezer and plan to make this pie for my family.  It's not nearly enough, but it's trending in the right direction. Perhaps remembering these blueberries will help the next time I'm sitting through a boring city council meeting.  




For the shell

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 large egg yolk, beaten with 2 tablespoons ice water
raw rice for weighting the shell

For the filling
1 cup buttermilk
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups picked over blueberries

confectioners' sugar for sprinkling the tart


In a bowl stir together the flour, the sugar, and the salt, add the butter, and blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Add the yolk mixture, toss the mixture until the liquid is incorporated, and form the dough into a ball. Dust the dough with flour and chill it, wrapped in plastic wrap, for 
1 hour. Roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick on a floured surface, fit it into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable fluted rim, and chill the shell for at least 30 minutes or, covered, overnight. Line the shell with foil, fill the foil with the rice, and bake the shell in the middle of a preheated 350°F. oven for 
25 minutes. Remove the foil and rice carefully, bake the shell for 5 to 
10 minutes more, or until it is pale golden, and let it cool in the pan on a rack.

Make the filling; 
In a blender or food processor blend together the buttermilk, the yolks, the granulated sugar, the zest, the lemon juice, the butter, the vanilla, the salt, and the flour until the mixture is smooth, spread the blueberries evenly over the bottom of the shell, and pour the buttermilk mixture over them. Bake the tart in the middle of a preheated 350°F. oven for 30 to 
35 minutes, or until the filling is just set.

Let the tart cool completely in the pan on the rack, sprinkle it with the confectioners' sugar, sifted, and serve it at room temperature or chilled with the ice cream.



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