By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN, InDepthNH.org
‘Tis the season for wild blueberry pickin’ in New England. The smaller, sweeter, snappier cousins of the farm-raised summer staple are great for muffins and jams because of their lower water content.
Unlike those you might find in a local grocery store, wild blueberries are free, if you are ready to hike for them. Peak season lasts until mid to late August. Below are some of the best public hiking locations to find the sweet shrubs, and get your nature fix, in regions across the state.
No matter which hike you choose, be sure to bring containers that are large and secure. Carrying an open bowl of this naturally growing candy down a mountain is, at best, an uncomfortable way to descend a mountain and, at worst, a recipe for sending your tasty treats for a tumble.
It is best to find a plastic bowl that is large enough to fit your entire harvest but small enough to fit in whatever backpack you bring. Secondly, budget yourself some time and lots of water: low-bush picking can add hours to your hike.
To beat the summer crowds, and to secure yourself the best crop, try hiking mid-week, or early in the morning on a weekend. As always when hiking, let someone know where you are, pack extra food, water, and sunscreen, and make sure you bring a map and are prepared for the conditions.
LAKES REGION: BELKNAP RANGE
The heart of the Lakes Region features the rolling Belknap Range, stretching from Alton to Gilford. Farther down the range from Alton’s famous Mt. Major are far less crowded hikes, with peaks of equal stature that boast similar lakeside views.
The hikes are of similar mileage to Major but require far less athleticism: no rock scrambling in sight. The trailhead for all three peaks is located on Belknap Mountain Road in Gilford. They can be hiked together as a 5-mile loop or individually, as an array of trails connects the peaks to the parking lot.
Piper Mountain is an under-2-mile round trip hike with a flat, rocky peak abundantly carpeted with wild blueberry bushes. Populated by cairns, rock-chairs and a firepit, it’s also a great place to hang out for a while.
Adjacent to Piper and connected via white blazes is Mt. Belknap, a slightly more athletic hike but, along the white trail, has the most pickings and is the least traveled in the area.
Just below the Belknap peak is a small clearing with enough blueberry plants to occupy an afternoon. The summit features a firetower with panoramic views of the Lakes Region: a great place for a picnic lunch.
A blue-blazed trail lines the saddle between Belknap and Gunstock. The downslope of Belknap features large clearings of berry bushes; on the upslope of Gunstock they are more sporadic but still abundant. Gunstock summit does not have much fruit but sports unmissable views of Lake Winnipesaukee framed by the Ossipee and White Mountains.
SOUTHWEST: PITCHER MOUNTAIN
Sometimes the key to the best wild blueberry picking is sheer volume of plants, and sometimes it is finding a hike that few others know about. Pitcher Mountain gives you both.
Nestled in Stoddard, the short, moderate .5-mile loop is lightly trafficked and lined with shoulder-high bushes. Don’t short-sell yourself on container size! A great choice for those who want great views and buckets of fruit but are not on board for hours of hiking.
The fire tower at the summit gives 360-degree views of the rolling, forested hills in the area with Mt. Monadnock framed in the distance. This quick hike is also a favorite among those in the know as a great place to catch the sunset.
EAST: BLUE JOB MOUNTAIN
This moderate length loop hike sits between Farmington and Strafford, and sports multiple trail options for different skill levels. Blueberry patches can be found peppered throughout this hike on all trail options.
The loop to Blue Job peak, also featuring a fire tower, is just over a mile round trip and comparable to Squam’s popular Rattlesnake Mountain.
A larger, three-and-a-half mile loop stretches around the North side of the summit, through more gradual forest trails, past plentiful wildflowers and a still pond to Little Blue Job, where locals say the views are even better. The gradual pitch on the longer loop makes it a great day hike for kids but remember not to pick the Lady Slippers.
NORTH COUNTRY: PERCY PEAKS
For the more advanced hiker, Percy Peaks Trail in Stratford is an option that will make you earn your harvest. North Percy’s exposed, rocky summit wears low-bush blueberries like a great blue halo, offering a rewarding snack after a moderate length but athletic hike.
Hikers can either follow the Percy Peaks Trail, shorter at just under four miles but steeper, or the Percy Loop Trail, a five mile, more gradual approach from the North side.
The first mile or two of each hike is somewhat gradual, while the second half is steep and involves exposed granite faces that can be slippery when wet. If trying to make a weekend trip out of it, there is a campsite about 1.5 miles along the loop trail.
WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THESE BERRIES?
As noted above, wild blueberries are smaller, about pea sized, than farm-grown ones, with a an intense flavor that is both sweet and pleasantly tart. Their petite stature means they have a lower water content than plump, farmed berries. Less water makes them great for baking: they reduce faster, require less added sugar, and won’t sog out your pie crust or muffin batter.
When you get your berries home, wash them. To do this, float your berries in a large bowl of water. As you gently swirl them around, pick off the stems, which, along with any tag-a-long dirt and bugs, will float to the top of the bowl while most of the berries should sink.
Once your berries are clean, lay them to dry on a dish towel. If you plan to use them within a week, go ahead and store them in the fridge. Any berries that you are saving for later can go in the freezer in an air-tight container. Berries retain their sweet flavor and nutrients when frozen, so there is no rush to use them all at once (they even make a pretty good cold, munchable snack).
If you do decide to bake with your harvest, check to see if the recipe you are using calls for wild blueberries. If it does not, you should cut down on the sugar (taste everything!) and add some thickener, like corn starch. If you are unsure, swapping out half a serving of regular blueberries with wild blueberries is a safe bet.
Looking for a simple, delightful recipe to get started? Blueberry crisp is easier than pie, and tastes just as good for breakfast the next day. This recipe is also very kid friendly.
Preheat your oven to 325?. Combine 6 cups wild blueberries in a bowl with the zest and juice of ½ lemon, 3 Tablespoons sugar, and a pinch of salt. Stir well by hand and place in baking container. Peaches or apples can make a nice companion to the blueberries; if you choose to add them, cut back on the blueberries.
Next, mix ¼ cup brown sugar, 1 Tablespoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, ½ cup all purpose, whole wheat, or almond flour, 2/3 cup rolled oats, ¼ cup maple syrup, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and half a stick of butter in a large bowl. Use your fingers to break the butter into pea-sized pieces, then stir the mixture to combine. Lay evenly over fruit in baking container.
Bake for about 45 minutes or until the fruit starts to bubble at the edges of the crust. If you are worried about the crust browning too fast, cover the dish with foil.
Enjoy however you want, whenever you want, and savor the fruit of your labor.