A berry good summer

Blueberries are usually associated with the USA, but they are a very important crop in France, where they are called myrtilles. And as well as being a rich source of antioxidants, they’re a source of income in this household. Eldest son Benj picks, but this year mainly packs, blueberries during the summer. The farm of the Myrtilles de Tremoulet is just outside Boussac, our nearest town. It’s a twenty-five minute scooter ride for Benj (scooters aren’t allowed to go over 45 km per hour!).

Packing myrtilles at Tremoulet - photo from www.myrtille.fr
Packing myrtilles at Tremoulet - photo from www.myrtille.fr

Myrtilles are notoriously sensitive. They can’t be picked if it’s too hot, too windy, too wet or too cold. They also require an acidic soil with plenty of actively decomposing organic matter, lots of sun and a consistent supply of water. They need to be pruned well in winter once the bushes are four years old or more. And of course there are a lot of critters that want to eat them, so pest and bird deterrents are a must. But despite being fussy, they are tough. A solid little fruit, they travel well. The ones Benj packs are shipped to the UK, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. And since they don’t need skinning or deseeding, they are easy to use.

It’s said that Native Americans thought that blueberries were a gift from the Great Spirit because of their star-like flowers. They dried the berries to preserve them so they could eat them all year round. They also made tea from the roots. It’s meant to be calming and also very healing.

Back to our local myrtille farm. The Domaine of Tremoulet has been in the same family for 500 years. Geoffrey Estienne has been growing blueberries there since 1985, no fewer than 13 varieties so that he has a long growing season. As well as being exported, the berries are made into wonderful jams and liqueurs on site. The picking is done by hand, as is the packing, so it’s a very careful, labour-intensive process. Benj is one of between 50 and 100 seasonal workers every summer. He has a few very early starts and occasional very late finishes, and it’s quite hard work, but on the whole, a great holiday job for a teenager. We are big blueberry fans here at Les Fragnes!

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