August 30, 2014

Our Lives: Blueberries define our season

A family’s year is defined by many seasons. From the Festival for the Eno, around the Fourth of July, to the current back-to-school tsunami, it’s blueberry season at our house.

“Here, try this. Let me know what you think,” offers my wife, extending a cold, frothy, dark blue concoction in my direction. I was coming in the back door from the humid outdoors, desperate for some cool relief. She had me at “try this.”

You see, her thing this month is new recipes for our blueberry bounty, and I’m her primary test subject. Blueberry soda? Sure!

A family’s year is defined by many seasons. From the Festival for the Eno, around the Fourth of July, to the current back-to-school tsunami, it’s blueberry season at our house.

Lasting a delicious six weeks, sometimes more, too often less, the ripe berries are begging for buckets. Ker-plink, ker-plunk, that’s our mid-summer soundtrack. I planted half a dozen rabbit eye bushes 30 ago in a woodsy clearing and they took off.

My efforts to grow apple, cherry and peach trees were less successful but the blueberries loved their new home from that first spring. Over the years, they expanded in every direction, becoming a popular year-round destination thicket for wildlife. Deer, wild turkeys and rabbits prune the lower branches, while birds nest 10 feet up, beyond our ladders’ reach.

We’re gleaning every day when the berries are ripe, usually early in the morning before it gets too hot and buggy and after dinner before sunset when the dogs are eager for an evening adventure. They are always up for a turkey run, always coming in second.

What to do with the harvest is never a challenge; our freezer is full of plastic containers. But what comes next after smoothies, muffins and toppings for waffles and granola?

This year, before the rain caused the ballooning berries to pop off the branches, my wife was especially industrious and experimental. The rolling berry harvest became her culinary mission, and I never tired of her efforts. Four varieties, with staggered ripeness dates, size and taste insured ample ingredients for her food experiments.

The blueberry soda was the product of boiling and simmering, mashing and straining. The dark blue liquid was combined with sugar and later club soda. The leftover mush became a colorful spread with either goat cheese or brie, served on crackers at a family birthday party. And then back we went to the orchard to pick some more.

Our styles of picking couldn’t be more different. I’m going for quantity, all sizes, just so they’re some shade of blue. My wife takes her time; the berries must be perfect. Then in the kitchen, she towels them off and sorts them again! By that time, my bucket’s in a freezer bag, already chilling for a winter’s delight.

To be honest, each blueberry season I start out wondering when I’ll ever manage to find the time to pick the darn berries. There are already so many chores and projects to fill the daylight hours. After a summer rain, I can stand on the front porch and watch the grass grow.

But after one of those surprise showers, as the air cools down to a bearable cloud, I’ll walk down one of the winding paths to the orchard, find my favorite bush and the rhythmic, soothing, meditative ker-plunk takes over.

After a soft rain, or at dawn, covered in morning dew, the bushes extend their highest branches like arms, sideways, bending with ample blue clusters. It’s a natural, cascading, perfectly curved display of color, light, shape and life itself, as water droplets reflect and magnify the faint and dark greens, the pinks and cherished blues.

I know I’m just lucky to be there to notice the wonder of the harvest. I pull around my favorite stubby, wide-legged ladder, reach up and start picking again.

Blueberry season changes the routine. Like strawberry season just before it, the opportunity to be part of it is fleeting. You could just let it pass. But in our house it’s a marker of previous and future harvests together.

This year, the traditional family favorite pies got bumped by more speculative fare. We had a blueberry sangria weekend, several breakfasts of blueberry scones, salads with blueberry vinaigrette and laboratory trials of tangy compotes and cordials.

It’s over now, even the wildlife have moved on to terrorize the ripe tomatoes. I’ll mow around the blueberry bushes one more time and clear out the fallen branches around the perimeter and the exits to the paths home. Making it ready for next year.


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