Bilberries: A Delightful British Superfood
Updated: Aug 26
If you find yourself wandering through the lush woodlands and moorlands of the UK, you may come across a small, dark fruit that is bursting with flavour and health benefits. Known as bilberries, these tiny berries are a delightful treasure native to the British Isles. In this post, we will delve into the world of bilberries, exploring their characteristics, where they can be found in the UK, and the various ways in which they can be enjoyed.
Bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) are small, blue-black berries that grow on low shrubs belonging to the Vaccinium genus. They are closely related to other berries, such as blueberries, cranberries, and huckleberries. The plants are typically no taller than knee height, with green leaves that turn a beautiful red hue in the autumn.
One of the distinctive features of bilberries is their deep blue-purple flesh, which stains everything it touches. This characteristic colour comes from the presence of anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants that contribute to the berry's numerous health benefits. Bilberries are packed with vitamins, particularly vitamin C and vitamin K, as well as minerals like manganese.
Here are some key characteristics to help with bilberry identification:
Size and Shape: Bilberries are typically small, measuring around 5 to 10mm in diameter. They have a round shape, similar to blueberries.
Colour: Bilberries have a deep blue-black or purple-black colour when fully ripe. This dark colour is a distinguishing feature that sets them apart from other berries. If you have ever picked them, you’ll know the purple fingers of the Bilberry picker!
Flesh: When you cut open a bilberry, the flesh is juicy and dark purple, sometimes with a reddish tinge. The dark juice stains everything it comes into contact with, including your hands and clothing.
Leaves: The leaves of the bilberry plant are typically green, oval-shaped, and have serrated edges. In the autumn, they may turn a vibrant red colour.
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The many names of the Bilberry
In the UK, bilberries are known by various names depending on the region and local dialects. Some of the alternative names for bilberries in the UK include:
Whortleberry: This is a common name for bilberries in many parts of the UK, particularly in England and Wales.
Wimberry: This term is often used in northern England, particularly in the North West and Yorkshire.
Huckleberry: While this term is more commonly associated with North American berries, it is occasionally used to refer to bilberries in certain parts of the UK.
Hurts: This name is used in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, to refer to bilberries.
Blaeberry: This name is commonly used in Scotland, especially in the Scottish Highlands and some Lowland areas.
Blueberry: In some regions, especially where there's a linguistic overlap with American English, people might use the term "blueberry" to refer to bilberries, though the two berries are technically different species.
Whinberry: Another term used in parts of northern England and Scotland.
It's important to note that while these names can be used interchangeably in various regions, there might be slight nuances in their usage and associations. In any case, bilberries are small, dark blue or purple berries that grow on low shrubs and are often confused with their larger relative, the blueberry.
Where can you find Bilberries?
Bilberries can be found growing wild in various regions of the UK, particularly in upland areas and specific habitats. Here are some notable locations where bilberries can typically be found:
Scottish Highlands: The Scottish Highlands are known for their vast moorlands and heathlands, providing ideal conditions for bilberries to thrive. Areas such as the Cairngorms National Park, Glen Affric, and the Isle of Skye are known for their abundant bilberry populations.
Lake District: The Lake District in Cumbria is another region where bilberries can be found. The rugged landscapes, including fells, moors, and woodlands, offer suitable habitats for bilberry growth. Places like Coniston Old Man, Helvellyn, and Grizedale Forest are often mentioned as bilberry hotspots.
Peak District: The Peak District, located primarily in Derbyshire, is home to a variety of moorlands, heathlands, and woodlands where bilberries can be found. Areas such as Kinder Scout, Mam Tor, and Stanage Edge are known for their bilberry populations.
Northumberland: Northumberland, with its extensive moorlands and coastal areas, is another region where bilberries grow. Places like the Cheviot Hills, Simonside Hills, and Kielder Forest are worth exploring for bilberry picking.
Wales: The mountainous regions of Wales, including Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons, offer suitable habitats for bilberries. Moorlands, heathlands, and wooded areas in these regions can yield a good harvest of bilberries.
It's important to note that bilberries can be found in other parts of the UK as well, depending on the local climate, soil conditions, and suitable habitats.
How to pick Bilberry
Picking bilberries can be a fun outdoor activity, you can pick them individually using your fingers or using a bilberry rake can make the process more efficient. It still requires care to avoid damaging the delicate berries and plants.
Here's a step-by-step guide on how to pick bilberries:
Timing: Bilberries are typically ripe for picking in late summer to early autumn, depending on your region. Look for dark blue or purple berries that are plump and easily come off the stem with a gentle tug.
You'll need a few items for bilberry picking with a rake:
Bilberry Rake: This is a specialized tool with tines that help comb through the bushes and collect the berries.
Container: Bring a basket, a bucket, or a container with a lid to hold the berries collected by the rake. Make sure it's large enough to accommodate the berries without crushing them.
Gloves: Wear gloves to protect your hands from thorns, insects, and staining from the berries.
Using the Bilberry Rake: Gently run the tines of the bilberry rake through the bushes. The tines will catch the ripe berries, allowing them to be easily dislodged from the stems and collected in the rake.
Check for Ripeness: As the rake collects the berries, check for ripeness. Ripe bilberries are plump, juicy, and have a deep colour. Unripe berries will be harder and lighter in colour.
Avoid Over-picking: Just like with hand picking, avoid picking too many berries from a single area. Leave some behind for wildlife and to ensure the plants continue to thrive.
Inspect for Debris: After raking, sort through the collected berries and remove any leaves, twigs, or other debris.
Cleaning at Home: Once you're back home, sort through the berries again and remove any remaining debris. You can rinse them gently under cold water, but avoid soaking them as bilberries are delicate and can absorb excess water.
Make swift work of picking berries with this selection of fantastic bilberry rakes and combs.
Bilberry Edibility and Culinary Uses
Bilberries are not only visually appealing but also highly edible. Their rich flavour and versatility make them a popular ingredient in various culinary creations. In this section, we will explore the edibility of bilberries and the numerous ways they can be used in the kitchen.
When it comes to edibility, bilberries are safe to consume and can be enjoyed both raw and cooked. Freshly picked bilberries have a slightly tart and sweet taste, with a vibrant burst of flavour. They are often savoured as a refreshing snack or incorporated into a variety of dishes.
One of the simplest ways to enjoy bilberries is by incorporating them into breakfast or dessert. Sprinkle a handful of fresh bilberries over your morning cereal or yoghurt for a delightful burst of flavour. You can also blend them into smoothies or use them as a topping for pancakes or waffles.
Bilberries are highly sought after in baking, where their vibrant colour and distinct taste can elevate a wide range of recipes. Add them to muffins, cakes, and scones to create delicious and visually appealing treats. Bilberry pies and tarts are particularly popular, showcasing the natural sweetness and deep flavour of the berries. The intense hue of the bilberries can also be utilised in jams, jellies, and sauces, providing a unique twist to traditional condiments.
Looking for a knockout bilberry recipe? Try our Lavender and Bilberry Cheesecake.
Furthermore, bilberries can be transformed into delightful preserves and syrups. By gently cooking the berries with sugar, you can create a luscious bilberry jam or jelly, perfect for spreading on toast or scones. Bilberry syrup can be used as a topping for ice cream, pancakes, or even mixed into cocktails for a fruity twist.
In addition to their culinary uses, bilberries are often dried and used in herbal teas. The dried berries can be infused in hot water, releasing their vibrant flavour and potential health benefits. Bilberry tea is known for its rich, fruity taste and is sometimes enjoyed for its potential eye health benefits.
It is worth mentioning that bilberries can also be frozen for later use. If you find yourself with an abundance of fresh bilberries, freezing them allows you to enjoy their flavour and nutritional benefits throughout the year. Simply spread them on a baking sheet and freeze them before transferring them to a resealable bag or container.
Whether eaten fresh, baked into goodies, or transformed into delightful preserves, bilberries offer a unique and tantalising flavour. Their versatility in the kitchen allows for endless culinary creativity. So, the next time you stumble upon a patch of these tiny blue-purple gems, consider indulging in their natural sweetness and incorporating them into your favourite recipes. Bilberries are truly a treasure trove for adventurous food enthusiasts and those seeking to experience the taste of the British countryside.
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Health Benefits of Bilberries
In addition to their culinary appeal, bilberries have long been recognised for their health benefits. The anthocyanins found in these berries have been linked to improved cardiovascular health, enhanced cognitive function, and reduced inflammation. They are also known to support eye health and may help prevent age-related macular degeneration.
While bilberries offer a wealth of flavour and health benefits, it is important to remember that they are a wild food. If you plan to forage for bilberries, make sure you are in an area where picking is permitted, and be mindful of conservation efforts. Only pick what you need, leaving enough behind for wildlife and future generations to enjoy.
Bilberries are a delightful treasure of the British countryside, offering not only a burst of flavour but also numerous health benefits. These small, dark berries with their deep blue-purple flesh can be found growing wild in various regions of the United Kingdom, particularly in upland areas such as the Scottish Highlands, the Lake District, the Peak District, and Wales.
Their versatility in the kitchen allows for endless culinary creativity. Whether enjoyed fresh as a snack, incorporated into breakfast or dessert recipes, or transformed into preserves, bilberries add a unique and tantalising flavour to a range of dishes. Their vibrant colour and distinct taste make them a sought-after ingredient in baking, where they can elevate muffins, cakes, pies, and more.
Furthermore, bilberries are not only delicious but also packed with vitamins, minerals, and powerful antioxidants. The anthocyanins present in bilberries contribute to their potential health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, enhanced cognitive function, and support for eye health.
When you are next exploring the British countryside, keep an eye out for these small gems. Whether you embark on a bilberry-picking adventure or source them from local markets, bilberries offer a true taste of nature's richness.
So, indulge in the joy of bilberries and savour their unique flavour, knowing that you are experiencing a delightful part of the natural abundance that the UK has to offer.
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