Blueberry or Bilberry?

Blueberry or bilberry? As I was reading a book called “Mc Gee on Food and Cooking” I became puzzled about the true name of what was resting at the bottom of my basket.

Blueberries are the small fruit of a group of flowering plants of the genus Vaccinium. This genus includes the blueberriesV. Cyanococcus, the bilberries V. Myrtillus, the cranberries V. Macrocarpon and the lingonberries or cowberries V. Vitis-idaea.

The blueberries are a native of North America (V. Cyanococcus), Northern Europe and Eastern Asia (V. Myrtillus). The shrubs sizes varies from 10cm to 4m. The smaller species are also known as lowbush blueberries which are mainly the wild species, the larger shrubs are called highbush blueberries which come from the selection and cross breeding of wild species since the beginning of the 19th century.
The blueberry shrubs can either be deciduous or evergreen. Its leaves are ovate (oval outline) or lanceolate (shaped like a lance head), from 1 to 8cm long and 0.5 to 3.5cm broad. The shrub favours poor, acidic soil to grow and is a pioneer plant of burned fields. It produces flowers that are bell-shaped, white, pale pink or red.

In Europe, the only true blueberry (genus V. Cyanococcus) that you will be able to find are farmed. The principal producers are France, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands and Italy. The largest producer of blueberries in the World is the U.S but their production is mainly for the U.S and Canadian markets. Farmed blueberries can be found on the market from the mid-June until the end of September.
Here in Ireland and in my homeland of Brittany it is the peak of the seasons for the wild bilberries (genus V.Myrtillus). The bilberry shrub looks like a short bush with small oval, evergreen leaves. They grow pale pink flower from mid-June until July and produce small round, dark blue fruits. They can be found in clear wood lands as well as rocky, bushy areas such as the Wicklow mountains or wild areas of Mayo and Donegal.

Bilberries and blueberries are true berries or single fruits derived from the plant’s ovaries. They have a distinctive, spicy aroma due to several terpenes*, phenolic antioxidants*and anthocyanins. They are also rich in anthocyanin pigments, especially in the skin.

Terpenes are flavour compounds that provides the citrusy, floral, leaf like and fresh flavour to the blueberry. It is also known to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and tumors. This type of flavour compound is very fragile and would be destroyed when exposed to heat.

Phenolic antioxidants are aromatic compounds that provides a spicy flavour to the overall taste of the blueberry but it is also beneficial the body. Antioxidants of the phenolic types are known to reduce the body’s own production of DNA-damaging chemicals. This type of flavour molecules are more resistant to heat and provide persistence of the flavour in the mouth.

Anthocyanin is a natural pigment. It gives the blue color of the bilberries and blueberries. It is also this pigment that gives red wine its color. Anthocyanin are, in fact, a polyphenolic compound which means that it is made of two or more phenolic flavour molecules linked together, which also gives antioxidant qualities to this pigment. They help in slowing the development of heart disease.
Recent studies, also shows, that blueberries or bilberries help prevent urinary track infections and have a significant impact in reducing the degradation of brain functions, as in Alzeimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s condition.
The nutritional breakdown for a 140g of blue/bilberries is as follow : 1g fat which no cholesterol nor saturated fats, 27g carbohydrates which 11g sugars and 3g dietery fiber, 1g protein. A 140g serving of fruits brings 15% of the daily needs in vitamin C.

In cooking, blueberries or bilberries are excellent fruits to make jams or tarts (use them raw as a topping) , they also make great mousses and gratins. They are a traditional accompaniment of pancakes and muffins. Try it, too, with creme brulees, it brings a nice acid/spicy cut through the richness of this type of dessert. Now blueberry juice have been introduced on the market. Not all of them are great now, I have to say, it is a good thing to have a good look at the label and check for the total content of pure blueberry juice a lot of them are mixed with apple or grapes juice. Another great way to eat them is, of the bush!