Blueberry or Bilberry?

Blueberry or bilberry? As I was reading a book called “Mc Gee on Food and Cooking” I became puzzled about the true name of what was resting at the bottom of my basket.

Blueberries are the small fruit of a group of flowering plants of the genus Vaccinium. This genus includes the blueberriesV. Cyanococcus, the bilberries V. Myrtillus, the cranberries V. Macrocarpon and the lingonberries or cowberries V. Vitis-idaea.

The blueberries are a native of North America (V. Cyanococcus), Northern Europe and Eastern Asia (V. Myrtillus). The shrubs sizes varies from 10cm to 4m. The smaller species are also known as lowbush blueberries which are mainly the wild species, the larger shrubs are called highbush blueberries which come from the selection and cross breeding of wild species since the beginning of the 19th century.
The blueberry shrubs can either be deciduous or evergreen. Its leaves are ovate (oval outline) or lanceolate (shaped like a lance head), from 1 to 8cm long and 0.5 to 3.5cm broad. The shrub favours poor, acidic soil to grow and is a pioneer plant of burned fields. It produces flowers that are bell-shaped, white, pale pink or red.

In Europe, the only true blueberry (genus V. Cyanococcus) that you will be able to find are farmed. The principal producers are France, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands and Italy. The largest producer of blueberries in the World is the U.S but their production is mainly for the U.S and Canadian markets. Farmed blueberries can be found on the market from the mid-June until the end of September.
Here in Ireland and in my homeland of Brittany it is the peak of the seasons for the wild bilberries (genus V.Myrtillus). The bilberry shrub looks like a short bush with small oval, evergreen leaves. They grow pale pink flower from mid-June until July and produce small round, dark blue fruits. They can be found in clear wood lands as well as rocky, bushy areas such as the Wicklow mountains or wild areas of Mayo and Donegal.

Bilberries and blueberries are true berries or single fruits derived from the plant’s ovaries. They have a distinctive, spicy aroma due to several terpenes*, phenolic antioxidants*and anthocyanins. They are also rich in anthocyanin pigments, especially in the skin.

Terpenes are flavour compounds that provides the citrusy, floral, leaf like and fresh flavour to the blueberry. It is also known to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and tumors. This type of flavour compound is very fragile and would be destroyed when exposed to heat.

Phenolic antioxidants are aromatic compounds that provides a spicy flavour to the overall taste of the blueberry but it is also beneficial the body. Antioxidants of the phenolic types are known to reduce the body’s own production of DNA-damaging chemicals. This type of flavour molecules are more resistant to heat and provide persistence of the flavour in the mouth.

Anthocyanin is a natural pigment. It gives the blue color of the bilberries and blueberries. It is also this pigment that gives red wine its color. Anthocyanin are, in fact, a polyphenolic compound which means that it is made of two or more phenolic flavour molecules linked together, which also gives antioxidant qualities to this pigment. They help in slowing the development of heart disease.
Recent studies, also shows, that blueberries or bilberries help prevent urinary track infections and have a significant impact in reducing the degradation of brain functions, as in Alzeimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s condition.
The nutritional breakdown for a 140g of blue/bilberries is as follow : 1g fat which no cholesterol nor saturated fats, 27g carbohydrates which 11g sugars and 3g dietery fiber, 1g protein. A 140g serving of fruits brings 15% of the daily needs in vitamin C.

In cooking, blueberries or bilberries are excellent fruits to make jams or tarts (use them raw as a topping) , they also make great mousses and gratins. They are a traditional accompaniment of pancakes and muffins. Try it, too, with creme brulees, it brings a nice acid/spicy cut through the richness of this type of dessert. Now blueberry juice have been introduced on the market. Not all of them are great now, I have to say, it is a good thing to have a good look at the label and check for the total content of pure blueberry juice a lot of them are mixed with apple or grapes juice. Another great way to eat them is, of the bush!


Cold cooking!

Throughout my years cooking in Ireland I encountered quite a lot of customers who would send back marinated fish dishes such as the ”mackerel” recipe that I posted on my blog, complaining that it was raw.
I always ask myself why is this. I decided then to go to have a talk with such customers to try to find an answer to my questions. I realised then that for them cooked food meant that the ingredients have been exposed to heat. This is not a misconception of the word cooking but meat, vegetables or fish can also be cooked without heat.
First of all let’s define the action of cooking. The Oxford dictionary says : “prepare by mixing, combining and heating the ingredients” or “be heated so that the state required for heating is reached”. But for the cook, cooking has two objectives, make the food easier to digest and create new flavours. For the scientist/cook, cooking means breaking down of proteins and chemical reactions.
What are the effects of heat on ingredients like fish or meat in a recipe. Heat will tenderise tough molecules and start chemical reactions that will create new aromatic compounds.
The molecule that makes meat or fish tough is called collagen. Women would be quite familiar with this type of protein as it is widely used in cosmetics. This protein constitutes a third of all animal protein. Collagen can be broken down by heat therefore making meat or fish easier to chew and digest.
But protein can also be broken down with acid such as vinegar,lemon juice or acidic compounds in wine. This will happen without heating by just placing the ingredients in a marinade for some time. So a fillet of fish placed in a marinade will be cooked with the acid in the mixture.
I came to the conclusion that the customers were mainly worried about food safety. And there are right to be concerned about it. One of the most important things is the freshness of the produce.
But there is another way of ensuring food is safe without using heat and this is where food science kicks in. The acid in a marinade acts as a preservative and there are very few strains of bacteria that would live or survive in an acidic environment. Pickles are a good example of the preservative effect of acids. Another example is ascorbic acid, more commonly named Vitamin C, is naturally present in lemon juice. The food industry make good use of this preservative, you can find it very often on food packaging under the number E300.
So feel confident, try marinated fish dishes or my simple recipe for mackerel.



It may sound surprising but fish too have seasons. August is traditionally the month in which the fish mackerel or scomber scambrus in Latin comes to Irish shores. But why is this? Mackerel is fished throughout the year in the whole of the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Irish Sea and the English Channel. For the winter months this fish lives in the depths of the sea but from March to mid-October they migrate to the surface making it easier to catch. Another typical behaviour of the mackerel is that every year it appears around the same periods in large shoals in particular places, around the coast of Ireland in Mid-August.
In Ireland you can find two main species of mackerel;the common mackerel with its silver, long,rocket- like shape or the horse mackerel with a wider body and a skin with a silver and green shine.
In my free time I love walking along the piers of Dublin Bay and sometimes I’ll throw a line into the sea and fish for mackerel but rarely get any, local fishermen and their small boat would tell me “…the fish is getting scarce now, the big boats take everything…” I see myself believing it as mackerel is becoming very scarce close to the shore as a result of over-fishing.
Mackerel is classified as an oily fish that means oils are distributed throughout the flesh of the fish. The Macronutrient content of mackerel per 100g of flesh is 64% water, 18.7% protein, 16.1% fat (which 3.3% polyunsaturated and 1.8% omega 3 fatty acid which are known to beneficially influence cholesterol level in the blood). It provides 220Kcal/100g.
Mackerel has a delicate flesh that does not support well, slow cooking or being maintained at temperatures around 130-140 degrees F/ 55-60 degrees C. These methods activate protein-digesting enzymes present in their flesh that tend to make the fish mushy. Therefore it makes grilling, pan-frying or baking the best ways of cooking mackerel. In my native France a very traditional way of cooking mackerel is using acid and alcohol such as a white wine-based marinade which is slow cooking, but wine, vinegar or lemon juice seem to destroy those enzymes using this process. And like all oil-rich fish mackerel is an excellent fish for smoking.