It's picking time: Berry, berry good

A picker at work at the Franklin Parker Preserve, owned by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
A picker at work at the Franklin Parker Preserve, owned by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 18, 2014

Early last October, I rummaged in my freezer, behind the ice cube trays and forgotten leftovers, and pulled out a container holding the last little spheres of summer. I can't remember what I ate them with; I probably tossed them on yogurt or into my breakfast cereal. But the taste of the blueberries - little indigo marbles with tart and creamy pink interiors - is unforgettable, a burst of July sun on the Jersey Pinelands.

Ever since, I've been waiting for blueberry season to come back around.

Finally, on Sunday morning, the day arrives. We wake up early to beat the heat, clamber into the car, and drive an hour into the heart of Burlington County. When cornfields give way to stunted pitch pine forests, we're almost there.

There's a connection to history that comes with blueberry-picking in these Pinelands, the plant's native habitat and the place where it was first cultivated, in Whitesbog in the early 1900s.

Just 15 miles from there lies my preferred berry patch, at the Franklin Parker Preserve, a nearly 10,000-acre cranberry and blueberry farm purchased in 2003 by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Today, the bogs have been restored to wetlands, abloom with water lilies and grasses in subtle shades of orange, pink, and yellow borrowed from Monet's palette. But the cultivated and wild blueberry bushes remain - crowding one another in overgrown rows and bursting up like weeds in the pitch pine forests.

And, while anyone is welcome to hike the preserve and snack on what they find, once a year the Conservation Foundation makes a day of it. For a $5 donation, preserve manager Russell Juelg shuttles eager pickers throughout the day down the rutted dirt road to the berry fields.

This area is better known as the heart of Jersey cranberry country. Indeed, the DeMarco family, which ran the farm for more than 60 years, devoted a thousand acres to bogs, and a much smaller expanse to blueberries.

Both thrived in the Pinelands' sandy, acidic soil, which wasn't conducive to most other crops.

"Farms all throughout Southern New Jersey in the Pine Barrens began to set out blueberry fields in the second decade of the 1900s," said Ted Gordon, a botanist and historian who runs a consultancy called Pine Barrens Inventories. Burlington County became the largest producer of blueberries in the country. "Everyone near Chatsworth was involved in blueberries at one time. Almost the whole town had a blueberry patch or, if not, a cranberry bog."

But blueberry picking was labor-intensive, he said. For small and midsize growers, the economics just weren't there. Over time, blueberry production moved elsewhere, to Atlantic County and out of state.

"All these little farms have folded today, and if you drive the woods, you can see the abandoned blueberry fields and you can still see the rows," he said. "The pine trees have grown up in those fields, and the land is just sitting there. It's too tough to maintain the farm in today's competitive world."

The Franklin Parker Preserve is also a kind of ruin - albeit a beautiful one, the perimeters of the old bogs now providing perches for ospreys, one of several dozen rare or endangered plant and animal species that flourish here.

We join a ragtag army of amateur pickers in the parking lot, each equipped with five-gallon buckets, boxes, or bags to fill with fruit. Twenty-four of us pile into a 15-passenger van for the bumpy two-mile drive out to the blueberry field.

Juelg explains that the Conservation Fund doesn't do much to maintain the bushes, but it does fend off invading saplings.

"Kept open, the fields tend to be a better habitat for the reptiles and amphibians that are on the property," he says. "The snakes need to have easy access to sunny places when they want to get warm."

With that, he advises us to watch out for rattlesnakes as we scatter into the field. We discover a smattering of wild blueberry bushes, with tiny, navy-blue orbs, amid the sturdy rows of plants bearing the larger, cultivated berries.

Trudge far enough down the overgrown rows, or better yet, close your eyes and plunge straight through a tangle of branches, and you'll find bushes undiscovered by hikers, their branches heavy with big clusters of fruit.

These are highbush varieties, tall enough for easy eavesdropping on other pickers' chatter. Invisible strangers chime in on conversations, offering their own memories of picking as kids, riding out to the fields on the bed of a rattling pickup truck.

Mostly, we talk about what we'll do with the berries, after we rinse off the twigs and leaves and little white worms that inevitably sneak into our harvest.

Last year, I made a pie loaded with blueberries and Jersey peaches, with a squeeze of lemon to offset the sweetness of the fruit. The year before that, I tried canning, following a cinnamon-spiked recipe from local author and blogger Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, who likewise first attempted making jam with her own Jersey blueberry haul.

When I bring friends, they tend to get overwhelmed by the bounty. They'll start forcing berries upon their friends. But too many blueberries, to me, has never been a problem (though freezer capacity does have its limits).

In an hour or two, our containers are full and, mercifully, no snakes have revealed themselves. We decide to skip the van and hike back to the parking lot, a journey the preserve rewards with secret wooded pathways, turtles paddling through canals, and the spectacle of old railroad track sprouting with trees.

When the trail turns sharply, we get lost for a while. But we're never hungry: The way back is lined with wild blueberry bushes.

Blueberry Scones

Makes 16-20 scones

6 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup sugar (plus a little extra for sprinkling)

2 sticks softened butter

2 cups buttermilk

1/2 pound blueberries

Egg wash (1/2 cup milk mixed with 1 egg)

1. Preheat the oven to 400. Grease and flour a flat cookie sheet or jelly-roll pan.

2. Mix together flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and sugar. Cut in butter using butter knives or a scraper's edge. The butter should be added slowly, taking care not to overmix.

3. Add the buttermilk and blueberries. Again, be careful not to overmix the dough. It should look as if it is almost falling apart.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently roll or push dough into a square about 11/2 inches thick. Use a biscuit cutter to cut the dough into shapes, or use a knife to cut the dough into triangles. Just be sure not to handle it too much.

5. Gently transfer the scones onto the greased and floured pan. Brush egg wash over the scones and sprinkle with sugar.

6. Bake for 10 minutes at 400, then reduce the temperature to 300 and bake an additional 20 minutes.

-From The Grandparents Handbook by Elizabeth LaBan (Quirk, 2009); inspired by scones at Barefoot Café in Ocean City, N.J.

Per scone (based on 20): 278 calories; 5 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams sugar; 10 grams fat; 30 milligrams cholesterol; 218 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.

Berry and Coconut Milk Ice Pops

Makes 10 (3-ounce) pops

2/3 cup thinly sliced ripe strawberries

2/3 cup ripe blueberries

2/3 cup ripe blackberries

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon natural cane sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 (13.5 ounce) can full- fat coconut milk

1. Combine strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, sugar, and cardamom in a saucepan.

2. Cook over low heat, stirring for 5 to 7 minutes, until the berries are soft but not falling apart; they should be a little jammy. Remove from the heat.

3. Stir in the coconut milk. Carefully pour the warm berry mixture into a pitcher, then pour mix into 3-ounce molds, helping some of the berries along with a spoon so that they are evenly distributed.

4. Freeze for at least 4 hours. They will last for a month in the freezer.

- From Vibrant Food (Ten Speed Press, 2014)

Per ice pop: 130 calories; 1 gram protein; 13 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams sugar; 9 grams fat; no cholesterol; 6 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.



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