Blueberries are sweeter when they're harder to get

October 01, 1997|By Rob Kasper

WHILE I HAVE long believed the adage that "the best fruit is at the top of the tree," I have rarely put this belief into practice. I wasn't willing to climb very high or work very hard to get the good stuff.

I figured that if a fruit chose to reside in some hard-to-reach location, it was a sign that the fruit, like Greta Garbo, wanted to be left alone. I was content to feast on life's conveniently-located fruit.

Until last weekend. That was when I tasted wild blueberries fetched from a remote island in the middle of a distant New Hampshire lake. That was when I understood the appeal of hard-to-get berries. The wild blueberries I found there were smaller than any I had seen in stores or markets, yet they packed much more flavor. When added to some ordinary, "Joy of Cooking" pancakes, they transformed them. They gave the pancakes a distinct tang, not sweet, not overpowering, but very pleasing.

These wild berries were "the prize" that had been bagged after an arduous journey. Getting them involved flying to Boston and driving two hours to a cottage on Squam Lake in northern New Hampshire.

From there, the quest continued by canoe. I am not sure exactly how far I paddled to get get to Yard Island in the middle of the lake, but to an inexperienced paddler like me, it felt like 500 crooked miles. I could make the canoe go forward, but had trouble making it go straight. My canoe meandered. If I had been a paddler on the Lewis and Clark canoe expedition, the explorers would still be stuck in St. Louis.

Finding the blueberries was a surprise benefit of the trek to New Hampshire. The original purpose of the excursion was to see a handful of friends that my wife and I had made when we were students at the University of Kansas in the 1970s. The reunion was planned for the lake in New England because it is a pleasant place to be in the autumn, and because it was close to where two members of the group, Kay Kloppenburg and Kathi Keller, now called home. Three other former flatlanders came in from Atlanta, Durham, N.C., and Washington for the weekend. At Squam Lake -- where the movie "On Golden Pond" was filmed -- we soon found ourselves hiking up a mountain, paddling across the lake, and picking wild edibles. This, apparently, is what outdoorsy New Englanders do for fun.

One morning, as I worked my way up an incline known as Mount Rattlesnake -- I chose not to inquire how the place got its name -- I watched Keller pick mushrooms off the forest floor and gleefully announce that they would be good for dinner. She said that since moving to Brattleboro, Vt., she had become adept at distinguishing between the tasty mushrooms found in local forests and the ones that could kill you. I was skeptical. To me, all the mushrooms looked suspiciously like the kind I have seen growing at the base of trees in downtown Baltimore.

A few hours later, after the group had taken an "invigorating" canoe trip to Yard Island in the middle of Squam Lake, Keller enlisted me in picking berries. "The bears would love this," she said as we worked over the bushes. I briefly considered asking, "What bears?" but didn't. Some things about local life I didn't want to know.

There was a brief debate whether the berries we had picked were blueberries or huckleberries. The matter was settled by Tim Butterworth, who is Kloppenburg's husband, and, more importantly, is a town official, a selectman, in Chesterfield, N.H. He eyed the tiny, blue fruit with small seeds and proclaimed it to be a blueberry. These are things a selectman knows.

When the blueberries showed up in pancakes, I ate heartily. When the mushrooms showed up as a side dish at supper, I just moved them around my plate. Proving, I guess, that while I am willing to climb New England's mountains and paddle its waters, I am not yet ready to eat all its wild things.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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