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August 27, 2007

SHF #34, Nosh In My Backyard: Regan Daley's wild blueberry pie and el Bulli's rhubarb with sugar and pepper


The summer heat shimmers around me and I can hear the oscillating buzz of grasshoppers as I sit on my front steps.  Time is stretching out and slowing down the way it does only for children. I don’t even realize I’m hungry until my mother appears with a pile of vermilion stalks on a plate, with a little bowl next to it.  I dip a rhubarb piece into the sugar in the bowl and bite down, savouring the shock of the sharp juicy sour crunch.

Rhubarb grew in a shady corner of our backyard, looking like horizontal ruffled elephant ears.  We’d pick the stems before they got too thick and woody, and cook them in jams and pies, while the children would often eat them raw with sugar as a treat.  Even though I hated celery and complained about its strings, I’d tear into rhubarb stalks with relish and valued the stringy fibres that straggled behind for their ability to hold extra sugar when I swept the stem through the sugar dish.

Ferran Adria offers a more sophisticated version of this childhood treat in el Bulli: 2003-2004.  He takes tender young raw rhubarb, carefully trimmed to minimize the tough fibres, and rolls them in demerara sugar and black pepper.  It’s a sharp dish -- the crystals of the sugar and the pepper’s heat seem to emphasize the sour taste -- but the added flavours round it out as well.  It’s surprisingly elegant for such a simple preparation.

It's also a perfect dish for the latest edition of Sugar High Friday, hosted by the passionate cook, which is all about going local.  Not only does rhubarb grow like a weed in our home province, Ontario, but the rhubarb we used to make our version of this dish was given to us by our friend Jill, who harvested the stalks from her mother's garden.

My parents no longer live at that house, but their current home does have another crop in the backyard.  Wild blueberry bushes dot the rocky brush behind their house in Sudbury, and it was an easy task to step out for fifteen minutes and return with a small pail of sapphire-hued treasures.  I say "was."  Construction crews are building a new housing development right over the backyard berry patch.  Sudbury’s economic boom is bad news for my blueberry pancake habit, which my mom has indulged during every summertime visit.  At least the construction reduces the chance of hungry bears coming into the yard, lured by the berries.

And there is simply no comparison between wild and farmed blueberries -- one of the reasons I gorge myself on blueberries at my parents’ house.  Sure, the domestic ones are just as pretty and twice the size, but they’re completely flat in flavour.  The wild ones pack a whallop of acidity and sweetness into each tiny globe, worth every sunburn and mosquito bite and sore back from picking that I’ve endured in their pursuit.

Regan Daley agrees.  "There is one thing you must remember in order to make this pie:  YOU NEED WILD BERRIES!  Never use the cultivated ones.  They make lousy pies, and lousy everything else for that matter," she states in her book In The Sweet Kitchen.  Blueberry pie has never been a real favourite
of mine, but I’d picked and brought back several pints of berries from my last visit, Rob was eager to try it, and Regan had not yet steered us wrong.

Her track record is still perfect.  The crust, made with lard and butter, is phenomenal:  light and crisp and flaky, we chased the last bits around the plate with our forks, unwilling to let any crumb go uneaten.  And the filling!  Rather than the stodgy, almost solid gel of store-bought blueberry pie, this is a juicy confederation of berries in all their summer glory.

We ate an astounding amount of the pie when it was fresh from the oven, and an even more surprising amount the next morning.  The recipe specifically mentions that, being comprised of flour, egg, and fruit, blueberry pie is an "honourable" breakfast food.  And though it may not be my mom's pancakes, it extends the tradition of fashioning simple, delicious treats from the bounty in the backyard.


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I love your childhood recollections...they make me remember my own carefree youth and delicious things coming out of mom's kitchen. Gorgeous pie, and I do envy you the access to all those blueberries! The rhubarb sounds fascinating and tasty too!


Your blog post brought back sweet memories of my Granma's rhubarb pie--thanks! chefjp


just can't decide which idea i like best! being a rhubarb addict and all... and having tried in vain to secure a table at el bulli this season, but then again, he might not serve the rhubarb anyway. the pie sounds and looks delicious - thanks for contributing your food memories to SHF34!

Ms. Glaze

I love rhubarb! I seem to be the only one in my family. Sometimes I like to cut it real thin and coat it with sugar syrup and dry it on low temp in the oven. It looks like sugared red glass.

Now wild're rekindling my favorite childhood book..Blueberries For Sal!!!

home cook

I love your blog! It's so clean and professional looking. My mouth is watering just looking on this seducing photo. You totally have a new reader.


Funny.. I just wrote a blog about how my dog loves strawberry rhubarb pie today. Your photograph of the blueberry pie has just brought back memories of when I was a kid and every morning, my dad would eat blueberry pie for breakfast. Love your blog and I too will be a new reader.

Susan from Food Blogga

Lovely story and recipe Rob. Both rhubarb and blueberries were staples on the East Coast where I grew up. I too recall bracing myself before biting into the raw, tart rhubarb which made my teeth ache. As for blueberries, my fingers would be stained for days after a lengthy visit to my Aunt Maysie's house, where we'd go blueberry picking. Isn't Regan Daley's book fabulous? Her tips are indispensable.

Scott at Realepicurean

Come on, stop it now. I pride myself on loving good old fashioned "real food" but you keep winning me over with all your kitchen trickery!


I am skipping the lamb brain ravioli and going straight for dessert (not that I don't like brains, but I am a Tartelette after all!). This pie is superb! I remember eating raw rhubarb as a kid but it was not the young gums hurt just thinking about it!


Thanks for the comments and compliments, everyone -- I think that the combination of food and summertime makes for especially potent childhood memories, and I can see that I am not alone!
Ms Glaze, that suggestion to coat the rhubarb with sugar syrup and dry it in an oven is a wonderful one. I'm sure it looks fantastic and might even give you a deliciously scented syrup left over at the end.
Susan, we're shameless Regan fans as well.
Tartelette, I think we ate rhubarb all summer until it was so thick and woody we couldn't get our teeth through it anymore! I too admit to a slight preference for the pie over the ravioli (shh, don't tell Rob. Cleaning the brains was a lot of work).


I'm such a sucker for berries :)

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