Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Maine Report Part One: Blueberry Land
Washington County, Maine produces something like 90% of the world's wild blueberries. If you hit the season just right (we were off by a few days this year), the fields along the road shimmer blue. In the fall, the berry bushes turn vibrant red. It's a lovely place.
Wild blueberries, in case you're unlucky enough only to have had the big, cultivated type, are tiny, a pain to pick (though they can be raked with a special device that catches the berries in a pan) and incredibly flavorful. They are also really good for you. They're high in antioxidants, I assume in part because they have such a high skin-to-flesh ratio. The good people at Wyman's, the major player in wild blueberries and a big employer in Washington County, have realized health benefits make for a good marketing opportunity. In recent years their wild blueberries have been made available frozen in the supermarket year-round, as well as in the form of juice, and of course the canned pie filling they have always sold retail. This is altogether a good thing, but, given the ease of acquiring wild blueberries in the last few years, I thought I would be less excited than I used to be about being in the wild blueberry capital during the peak season.
I was wrong.
The people of Washington County have embraced the blueberry. The blueberry represents Maine as much as the moose or the lobster - maybe not to people "from away", but within Maine, there is no question. Blueberry pancake breakfasts are offered at every church and lodge. There's the big wild blueberry festival in Machias, with pie-eating contests, the blueberry musical, a blueberry run, and the annual raffle of a blueberry-themed quilt made by the women of the town. And then there's Wild Blueberry Land, a fantastic piece of roadside kitsch selling all things blueberry.
What I found particularly charming about Wild Blueberry Land (besides the building itself, of course) was that the blueberry items were all pretty good. Sure, there were some nationally sold brands that just happened to have offerings in blueberry flavors, like a blueberry iced tea. But there were locally-made blueberry pies (excellent), scones (also very good), muffins (average), truffles (the chocolate was high-quality and the blueberry fondant filling was bright and fresh in flavor), as well as very good blueberry ice cream from Giffords, a Maine brand.
In case you think that's all the blueberry products anyone should expect to find in Washington county - well, think again. Our group of vacationers decided to have a contest the last night to determine who had consumed the most blueberry items. I blush to declare myself the winner, the blueberry queen, as it were. In order to achieve such heights, I had to consume (or at least taste) raw blueberries, a blueberry scone, a blueberry muffin, French toast with blueberry compote, blueberry wine, blueberry ale, blueberry milkshake, a blueberry truffle, blueberry jam, blueberry soda, blueberry ice cream, blueberry banana bread, and blueberry coffee cake. But I did not even get a chance to try chocolate-covered dried blueberries, blueberry pancakes, blueberry tea, blueberry liqueur, blueberry sorbet, blueberry whoopie pies (!), blueberry mimosas and blueberry cheesecake. Clearly, I have goals to reach in my next visit.