Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bilberry? Blueberry?

I left yesterday's topic of raspberries reluctantly, so to ease my pain today I am going to think briefly about blueberries. A question came up over lunch yesterday about the difference (if any) between blueberries and bilberries. I knew blilberries from my childhood in Yorkshire, and remember picking them on the moors. I have always assumed that they are simply the wild form of the cultivated, fatter, sweeter blueberry.

It appears that blueberries and bilberries are more like cousins on the family tree. I give you the definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, on the assumption that the editors received good advice from botanists during their deliberations on the word.

The bilberry has been mentioned in the literature since the sixteenth century, but no doubt known about and eaten for much longer. The bilberry, according to the OED is:
"The fruit of a dwarf hardy shrub ( Vaccinium myrtillus), abundant on heaths, on stony moors, and in mountain woods, in Great Britain and Northern Europe; the berry is of a deep blue black, and about a quarter of an inch in diameter. So called chiefly in the Midlands; other names are whortleberry n. and blaeberry n."

The blueberry is the American cousin of the bilberry, if the OED is to be believed. The first recorded mention in English is in 1790, but again, must certainly have been used and enjoyed by the indigenous population for a very long time. The blueberry, according to the OED is:

"The name of various species of Vaccinium, especially the American V. corymbosum."

Real people pre-occupied with finding food for their families have not, however, always have the benefit of the dictionary to decide what they were eating, and the search for information is confused by local naming of things. I have seen references to the blueberry as being also called the cranberry, which is certainly extreme, but confusion between blueberries and bilberries and whortleberries and huckleberries and many more berries is rife. Luckily, for those of us interested in the cooking end of things, they are usually interchangeable in recipes. The recipe I give you today is a quick easy American version of the old English summer pudding.

Blueberry Slump.
1 small box blueberries, Cook in 1/2 cup water with
3/4 cup sugar
6 slices white bread. Butter and put in squares in pudding dish. Pour berry mixture over bread and put in ice-box. Serve with cream.
[Random Recipes; Society for Seamen's Children; undated charity cookery book]

Quotation for the Day.
There pinch the Maids as blew as Bill-berry.
Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor (1623)


carolina said...

Good day! I have a non-food question. It's also more personal. You say you grew up on the moors of Yorkshire, yes? I was wondering, Where exactly? I ask because my ancestors on my mother's side came from the Haworth-Leeds area. My mother and I even went up to Haworth one summer while in England many years ago. Lovely, LOVELY spot! I went walking out on the moors, over hill and dale, dodging sheep (and sheep patties!) at every step. Ahhh, good times! Anyway, I was just curious.... Thanks!

Anonymous said...

UHH This can be confusing, as the German literal translation of Blaubeere is Blueberry but means the wild Vaccinium myrtillus if you are on a farmers market and the Garden Variety (BIG berries)if you are in a supermarket.

In Austria Blueberries are Blackbeeries (Schwarzbeeren) and almost ever mean the wild Vaccinium myrtillus as the Garden variety is Blueberries.

It can also be called "Heidelbeere" in Germany or Austria

blueberry [Solanum scabrum, Vaccinium myrtillus]
bot. Schwarzbeere {f} [regional: Heidelbeere]
garden huckleberry [Am.] [Solanum scabrum]
bot. Schwarzbeere {f}
bot. Gartenheidelbeere {f}

Just to confuse things further

Kind Regards

Susan Vienna

The Old Foodie said...

Sorry for the late reply i have been catchimg up after my holiday.
I grew up in Thornaby (Teesside) so am most familiar with the northern edge of the moors.
I am hoping to return for.a longer trip next time!

Anonymous said...

I have recently been reading about these, as I bought some on impulse.

Apparently, blueberries are green inside, but bilberries seem to be colored, inside and out.

Both berry varieties have taller and shorter forms.

Both seem to grow wild in the US, although blueberries are more commonly cultivated, here.