Bilberry, or shall I say borówka or jagoda, is a berry well known and loved by many Eastern and Northern Europeans. In Poland, bilberry season is much awaited for by children and adults alike. This sweet, slightly tangy, tiny fruit is often foraged for in the forest in July, and bilberry picking endeavours are the symbol of summer holidays. To be in Poland in July and not taste pierogi z borówkami (dumplings with bilberries), is a sin. Bilberry pierogi making and eating is an unforgettable experience: if you’re not careful, your kitchen sides and towels, your fingers and your mouth, too (assuming that working with bilberries causes one to uncontrollably devour them) will be dyed purple, as this teeny tiny berry is more powerful that it might seem. And it’s not at all like the sweet, bit bland, giant blueberry we all know from supermarkets all over the world.
The thing is, though, the bilberry has been lost in translation. For me, at least, I admit shamefully. At school, over the years of studying English (and often starting anew, from the alphabet, through counting, colours, family members, animals and food; teachers changed often and each of them wanted to make sure we knew the basics) I was taught that blueberry means borówka or jagoda, which is a fruit in English known as bilberry, not a blueberry. The English word blueberry should be translated into Polish as borówka amerykańska (American blueberry, the giant berry with translucent pulp), available in the supermarket and often disregarded by Polish people as not-the-real-stuff. To be sure, bilberry and blueberry are completely different berries, with their own distinct flavour, colour and texture. They only look similar in shape, but again, not in size. The bilberry is a few times smaller than a blueberry, and much darker in colour.
I wonder, then, why the confusion? Why wouldn’t Polish teachers and textbooks translate it precisely? Is the assumption that such knowledge would be too in-depth for the 7 year old school kids underlying such a move? Or is it the fact, that in England the wonders of bilberries are hugely unknown or forgotten?
Due to this confusion, my past five summers in England were devoid of the sweet pleasure of bilberries. I desperately searched the supermarkets during my first July here, hoping to find them. Without their sweetly remembered flavour of childhood, summer holidays and jauntily carefree days spent on reading, walking in the forest and listening to the buzzing meadows, my summer could not be complete. And yet, I managed to do without for five years (!), when I realised that it’s beyond my powers to find them in England. Don’t get me wrong, I asked around. But often, I was met with the misbelief at best, and accusation of insanity at worst, after trying to explain that there is, in fact, a real blueberry out there, in the forest. It tastes heavenly, it stains your mouth and fingers and it’s oh, so tiny. The only thing was, the fruit I was describing was not a blueberry at all. It was a bilberry.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a species of low-growing shrubs in the genus Vaccinum, bearing edible, nearly black berries. They are found in woods and on heaths, mostly in hilly areas of Great Britain, Northern Europe, and Asia. The berries ripen from July and August (depending on the region), and are often foraged for from July to September. In the UK, they are known under many regional names, to name a few: blaeberry, urts (Cornwall), hurtleberry, huckleberry, wimberry, whinberry, winberry, blueberry, and fraughan. In Poland, they’re most commonly known as jagody, or czarna jagoda. In the south of Poland though, they are called borówki.
I made this discovery recently, when scrolling through the Woodland Trust’s website, looking for recommendations of what to forage for in July. Last year, I tried mushroom picking in England for the first time, and I found the forest (to my astonishment) very familiar. The mushrooms, too, were the same as the ones my family forages for in Poland every year. Encouraged by my last year’s success, I thought why not trying this year again, maybe English forest have other “Polish” treasures to offer? I was desperate to find wild strawberries (poziomki), another symbol of summer in Poland (and my beloved berry), and so I searched the web ferociously. I read articles, books, guides, blogs – all to find out if it’s possible at all to find wild strawberries here (it is, but I am yet to find them). Searching through one of the websites, I stumbled upon a picture of bilberries, and, I must tell you, I went crazy.
I was obsessed with bilberries, I was on a quest, in amok, unstoppable. Unfortunately, I was not able to find them in the forest (my search for them, and wild strawberries, ended in a few massive bruises and rather ugly scabs on my right shin), but the Polish shop offered a helping hand, stocking bilberries (as well as other treasures of Polish summer, like fava beans, yellow beans, kohlrabi, or dill flowers, necessary when picking and fermenting gherkins) to my visible (and, looking back, slightly embarrassing) overjoy.
So here I am, at home with two packs of bilberries (about 1kg total, which is a lot), not being able to decide what to do with them: eat raw? make pierogi? make jagodzianki? I am afraid to open the fridge, knowing they’re there, as I’d have to use inhumanly powers to restrain myself from reaching out for one. Because I know, that one bilberry would very quickly turn into a whole package. And that, that would be unforgivable. As I haven’t eaten bilberries in almost four years, there needs to be an adequate decorum, the atmosphere or nearly sacred feast, a momentum. Especially that Żubrek has never tried a bilberry in his life. Oh, the sweet excitement of the introduction! I do hope he finds them nearly as great as I do. Which might take a lot of convincing, as he hates blueberries. Hates their guts.
If you live somewhere, where bilberries grow and prosper, go forage! Enjoy bilberry’s charm and powerful flavour. You’ll see, how spending some time in the forest can calm your nerves. Sometimes it’s good to stop. Listen to the buzzing meadows. Get stung by nettles. Sit on the grass. And there is something beautifully primal about eating wild foods. Try it yourself.
Just remembered the song, my mum used to sing to me and my siblings when we were kids. I used to love it! The song is about bilberries, of course. The lyrics is in Polish, with my translation attempt below.
Jesteśmy jagódki, czarne jagódki,
Mieszkamy w lesie zielonym,
oczka mamy czarne, buźki granatowe,
a sukienki są zielone i seledynowe.
(Ref.) A kiedy dzień nadchodzi, dzień nadchodzi,
idziemy na jagody, na jagody,
a nasze czarne serca, czarne serca
biją nam radośnie: bum tarara bum tarrara bum bum!
We are little bilberries, black bilberries.
We live in the green forest.
Our eyes are black, our faces navy blue,
and our dresses are green and celadon colour.
And when the day comes, the day comes.
We’ll go for bilberry picking, bilberry picking.
And our black hearts, black hearts
Are beating joyfully: bum tarara bum tarrara bum bum!
Bilberry picking is pure joy! For those, who are feeling encouraged some information about what to forage for in July and where to find wild foods in the UK below.
Bilberry, Wild Food UK.
Foraging in July, The Woodland Trust.
What are British bilberries and where to find them.
Enjoy summer foraging!