Berried alive: a wild blueberry bonanza
"Do you mind if I go to Sudbury for a week to visit my parents?"
This sentence may be phrased as a question, but it's not; it's actually Rachel's way of telling me she's going up north. It did provide an opening, however, so I seized the moment.
"No problem," I said, quickly raising my index finger to signal the seriousness of my next statement, "but you have to come back with blueberries."
Wild blueberries, to be precise, which grow in such abundance in Sudbury that the city hosts an annual Blueberry Festival. It's no surprise, then, that wild blueberry bushes flourish within a pleasant summer's stroll of my in-laws' back door. The trick, if there is one, is to get to them before the bears, those "godless killing machines without a soul," who happen to love them almost as much as we do.
Alright, perhaps I'm overstating the threat a bit, but the bears are just one of many reasons I'm not cut out for life in northern Ontario. I'll never forget my first visit to Rachel's parents. It was Christmas, 1998, and they lived in Timmins. Timmins makes Sudbury look downright tropical; it's almost as far north of Sudbury as Sudbury is north of Toronto. What I'm trying to say is that it's cold, really cold, colder than anything you've likely ever experienced: spit-freezing, skin-numbing, testicle-reascending cold. I'm not sure the temperature ever got warmer than -40C (-40F) on that trip, and, with the windchill, it fell below -60C (-76F) one day. As if that weren't enough, Timmins averages 3.5 metres of snowfall per year (thats 11.5 feet)!
It is, in short, the Canada many non-Canadians conjure up in their minds when they think of this country. Not that Sudbury's much different, mind you, what with -20C (-4F) being a respectable winter temperature.
Come summer -- and what a brilliant two weeks that is -- the hard slog of winter becomes a distant memory. After a couple of hours of picking, Rachel returned with two large yogourt containers of blueberries, a nasty sunburn on her lower back, and my unfaltering gratitude.
The first dish I prepared with wild blueberries strikes me as a flavour combination straight out of molecular gastronomy: wild blueberry and mushroom risotto. I found the recipe not in an El Bulli cookbook, but in an Italian cookbook sitting on our shelf, Regional Foods of Northern Italy: Recipes and Remembrances. The recipe comes from a chef near Courmayeur in Val d'Aosta, who was inspired by the wild mushrooms and blueberries he discovered growing side by side one day on his way to work.
For our version of this dish, I used 150 grams of wild blueberries (approximately 1 cup) and 250 grams of chanterelle mushrooms, which can be found without difficulty in the St. Lawrence Market. I'm not a fan of the basic risotto recipe in Regional Foods of Northern Italy -- beef stock seems too strong for blueberries and chanterelles, and adding a half cup of heavy cream to a risotto is just plain wrong -- so I adapted it to our tastes by ditching the cream and using chicken stock.
Delicious. Perhaps a little too delicate, but very good nonetheless. Rachel was sceptical about the combination, but one bite was all it took for her to agree these flavours work well together. If we were to find fault with this dish, it would be that there are not enough blueberries in it. The earthy, mildly fruity taste of chanterelles is wonderful, but it seemed to overwhelm its partner at times.
That still left a tonne of blueberries ("a tonne" meaning 900 grams, actually). I was tempted to make a straightforward blueberry pie, but the problem with that is that it's a little too... straightforward. So I turned to Regan Delay, my favourite pastry chef, and soon happened upon a promising recipe for blueberry hazelnut bars in In the Sweet Kitchen.
A perfect solution, or so I thought. I've made countless recipes from this book before and, without exaggeration, they've all been unbelievable (if you don't believe me, I encourage you to click here, here, and here), so I tried this one without hesitation. I have to admit a little disappointment. These bars are good, especially topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, they're just not up to the mouthwatering standard of her other desserts.
I've become accustomed to wild blueberries every summer. Sadly, it's a tradition that may end next year. Sudbury is a city literally built on nickel. The largest deposit in the world rests underneath it, so this mining town is enjoying a degree of prosperity thanks to skyrocketing natural resource prices. The net result is that a developer plans to use the land on which Rachel picked wild blueberries for a new subdivision, so picking them next year is going to require some extra effort.
I hope she really loved that risotto.