Most people have a favorite season. My favorite? Blueberry Season.
Atlantic County in South Jersey is the place to be if you love blueberries. These little blue dynamos, sometimes called bleuets (French), thrive here.
Atlantic County has just the right balance of sandy soil and organic matter (“berryland soils”) that highbush blueberries love, and this county is the largest producer in the state with over 42 million pounds of blueberries harvested from 6,100 acres. In comparison, the next highest producer, Burlington County, harvests 5,300 pounds or more annually from 1,000 acres.
Hammonton, NJ, a town in Atlantic County with a population of 12,840, located between Atlantic City and Philadelphia just off the Atlantic City Expressway, claims to be the Blueberry Capital of the World. To celebrate their claim to fame, Hammonton holds a Red, White, and Blueberry Festival every year on the Sunday before July 4th. This event comes complete with blueberry pie-eating contests, baking contests, carnival games for the kids, a craft show, music, antique cars, a stage show, and plenty of food to eat. You can buy blueberries by the pint or the case, or you can just buy a blueberry pie or a jar of blueberry jam.
This year’s festival was held last Sunday, July 1, just one day after a terrible freak thunder and wind storm called a derecho hit neighboring towns. Hammonton had thunderstorms but with none of the damage that hit other Atlantic County cities. Read more about that derecho here. Because of high winds, nearby Mays Landing lost much of its current blueberry crop just mid-way through the season.
If Hammonton’s auspicious claim to be the Blueberry Capital of the World is not enough, some New Jerseyites have made another chest-thumping, back-slapping assertion. Vicki Hyman of Newark’s Star-Ledger wrote about our beloved blueberry in “How New Jersey saved civilization by taming blueberries.” You can read that story here.
Do you think we Jerseyites make exaggerated claims about blueberries? Think again.
We grow blueberries that are bigger than a penny! Here’s the proof.
Historically, lowbush blueberries grew wild in the South Jersey Pinelands, but these berries were small and tart. Native Americans in the area used them for relieving stomach problems and other ailments. We now know that these berries, loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, protect against cancer and heart disease. Blueberries lovers also claim that these blue wonders are like the proverbial fountain of youth. Eat them, and you will have better eyesight and better skin, all the while delaying old age. How’s that for fanfaronade?
In the early 1900s, Elizabeth Coleman White (1871-1954), a cranberry farmer with a November crop, wanted to expand her family’s farm business into the rest of the year by raising blueberries. She searched out the best wild blueberries bushes in the area looking for the biggest berries. She and botanist Frederick V. Coville then cross-pollinated thousands of cuttings and developed the first cultivated blueberry bushes, beginning what is now a billion-dollar industry in New Jersey.
In 2003, Proud New Jersey fourth graders from Veteran’s Memorial Elementary School in Brick, NJ, lobbied the New Jersey Legislature to proclaim these little blue dynamos to be the official state fruit. Their bid was successful, and the Legislature recognized the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) as one of the state’s claims to fame and fortune.
Of course, other states put out their claims for blueberries, too. The wild blueberry is the official state fruit of Maine, and several towns in Maine squabble over being the blueberry capital. Maine produces 25% of all the lowbush blueberries in North America. Lowbush blueberry plants are about one-foot tall, whereas highbush blueberry plants are between four and thirteen-feet tall. The bushes in our local fields have a good picking height of about five to six feet.
Wild blueberries. Lowbush blueberries. Highbush blueberries. All technicalities! Let’s just say that with Atlantic County producing more than 42 million pounds of blueberries, we have earned our bragging rights!
Blueberries are very versatile. You can eat them at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack. You can use them in drinks, sauces, soups, salads, breads, entrees, vinegars, desserts, and wines. Here are some of my favorite ways to use them.
Want to try making the Blueberry Crisp or the Easy-Peasey Blueberry Tart? Here are the recipes.
Deep Dish Blueberry Crisp
- 5 cups Jersey Fresh blueberries (you can also use frozen blueberries)
- lemon zest from half of one small lemon
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup sugar (use more if your berries are tart)
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup oatmeal (or two oatmeal cereal packets-any variety)
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 6 tbsp butter cut in pieces (or Smart Balance Margarine)
- Prepare the blueberries by washing gently and removing any remaining stems. (If you use frozen blueberries, let them partially thaw first.)
- Pour blueberries in a deep dish pie plate and toss with flour, sugar, lemon zest, and cinnamon.
- Make crisp topping by mixing brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and butter.
- Pat crisp topping over blueberries.
- Bake at 375 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until blueberries are bubbly.
- Serve with vanilla ice cream.
Easy-Peasey Blueberry Tart
- one frozen pie crust
- 3 cups Jersey Fresh blueberries
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1/3 cup sugar (more if your berries are tart)
- lemon zest from 1/2 small lemon
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- Let pie crust thaw for 15 minutes. Roll it out a bit on flour-covered parchment paper and place in pie dish. (Pie crust should hang over the edge of the pie plate.)
- Mix blueberries, flour, sugar, cinnamon, lemon zest. Pour mixture in center of crust.
- Fold edges of pie crust back in over blueberries.
- Bake for 30-40 minutes at 375 degrees until blueberries are bubbly and crust is light brown.
- Serve with vanilla ice cream.
Blueberries can also be used to make wine. Our local Balic Winery produces blueberry and other berry wines along with their usual grape wines.
Next time you buy blueberries, look at the label to see where they were raised. Maybe you will be lucky enough to buy our Jersey Fresh little blue dynamos.
Here’s a bit more on these delicious berries.