"Welllll. Do you have a blueberry rake?" Dave asked.
Dave is an ideas guy. But he's also one to plan, lead and follow through, often leading me to wonder where he finds the time. Since bird hunting with him last fall (he's a Registered Maine Guide, among many talents, and no small feat), he's become a dear friend, and something of an adoptive Maine Dad and benefactor. He generously shares his time, advice, connections, family and friends, and deep knowledge of all things Maine.
"A what?" I said.
"If you’re going to pick wild blueberries, you are going to need a rake. Let me see if I can find an extra one. There are some great fields up by my family’s camp"
"Of course!" I'd actually been dying to get out there, but we didn't know where to go.
I almost said no. How could we go? There are no days off during the summer in our business. But life here is deeply seasonal; when the berries are ripe, you pick. So, of course, I said, "we're in!"
Being "from away," I had never seen a blueberry rake, but I discovered that it's a unique tool that looks like a metal shoebox attached to a long, fine-toothed comb. With blueberry season’s days numbered, and considering this our last opportunity of the year, we had to maximize the harvest. I knew exactly who to call: Amy and Toby, of Old Narrow Gauge Farm, who are active foragers and friends, and know just about every edible to look for, and when. As usual, they were happy to oblige. So we swung by their pig farm in Alna on the way, and continued up to Whitefield to meet Dave.
"The season has pretty much passed," Amy, said "but you might find enough berries to make some jam."
Just some jam would be good enough for us. After all, we were in it for the experience. Once we learned what to do and when, we could get serious next year.
They equipped us with everything we needed: two beautiful vintage rakes, a stack of plastic flats and two five gallon buckets. All told, enough for about 100 pounds of berries. Just in case.
Even though I’d visited Maine for 15 years, and have lived here for about a year, I had never been to Whitefield. The beautiful route there wound past rolling hills, twisting fields of crops, and cows, horses, alpacas, and sheep.
Dave had told us to meet at "the general store." A quick Google search directed us to the Sheepscot General Store and Farm. This historic farm and store fell into disrepair over the years until a few years ago when a young couple came home to Whitefield and breathed new life into it. Now, it serves as a hub for local food and community. Beautiful stories like theirs continue to inspire and delight us as we settle down here.
The store’s shelves stock fresh produce, local products, handmade clothes, and some essential provisions. There’s a cute café inside serving up those same delicious ingredients. Dave was nowhere to be seen, so we decided to fuel up for our day of picking. Time slipped away sitting on the back porch overlooking the fields, nibbling on reubens with homemade corned beef, and sipping glasses of beer and kombucha on tap.
"It was worth the drive for this meal alone," I said, between bites, to Stuart.
Once we came to and checked the time, Dave’s absence worried us. We called him and discovered we were at the wrong general store. He had been waiting at the superette down the road which, confusingly, used to be called the general store.
Dave's roots, we soon discovered, run deep in this town. And that store, he told us and later showed us in a picture tacked to the fridge at his parents' camp, was across the street from the town's original general store, which his great, great aunt had owned and run.
Our next stop was a visit to Dave's cousin Mary who now lives in his mother's old house. Dave's mother recently passed away, and I wondered how raw his grief might still be.
I instantly noticed Mary's lush and meticulously weeded gardens and the baskets in her kitchen overflowing with state fair-sized squash, ripe red tomatoes and garlic. I remembered how Dave had asked me so many times last fall, "did you get your garlic in?" I had not.
"Over there," Dave said, pointing to a large field across the street, "my grandfather had his garden. There's some horseradish somewhere, and blackberry bushes down at the end. We can can pick those after the blueberries."
Living so far away from and disconnected to my hometown in West Texas, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be so connected to a place.
"One thing at a time," said Mary, bringing Dave's characteristic enthusiasm back down to earth.
Talk soon turned to gardening, and from there, naturally, to cooking. We already knew Dave is a wonderful cook. It turns out most of his family is, too. In different ways, they've continued the traditions of farming, hunting, foraging and cooking from this land.
When we pulled up to the field to harvest, I couldn't immediately tell what it was. Dave ushered me closer, and I saw that the rolling field was carpeted with dense low bushes bursting with ripe berries, all for the picking.
Dave gave me a quick tutorial, and then we were off to work. We filled bucket after bucket, flat after flat. After a while, I needed a break. Apparently, blueberry harvesting, with it's crouching and bending, isn't the best pregnancy activity.
I checked on Comet, who by now was sleeping soundly in his kennel, all tuckered out from running wild through the fields and gorging on berries when I wasn't looking. Then I strolled through the cemetery on the hill above the field, reading names and dates etched in granite through the slanting late afternoon light.
I stumbled upon a stone that read 'Giampetruzzi,' Dave's last name. It was his father Nino's tombstone. I hadn't realized he was buried here, but it made sense. I noticed someone canoeing on the placid lake below; wind rustling the leaves.
Next to Nino's name and dates was his mother's name - Roberta - but the date of her death had not been filled in. She wasn't buried there, although it had been several weeks since she passed away. Dave later explained that the interment would be held on her birthday, in October.
When I made it back to the car, I discovered we'd filled all of our flats and buckets. Dave was not far behind. We sat on the bumper and he told me he probably knew most of the families whose names were on those stones.
We collected Stuart and stopped back by Mary's so she could show us the ingenious system she devised for cleaning berries without a winnower.
As a parting gift (as if she and her family hadn't yet bestowed enough gifts), she gave us a handful of garlic that Dave's dad had grown that they think his family had probably grown before that in Italy. In turn, we left her with all we had to offer: blueberries.
Driving home in the dark, we soon realized we would be up all night cleaning our berries by hand, and we had to get an early start on work the next morning. Luckily, Amy called and insisted we stop by to use their winnower. We hadn't wanted to bother them so late and we were already close to home, but when she told us it would only take 10 minutes, we couldn't resist.
When we pulled back into their driveway, they greeted us with their headlamps on and truck lights illuminating the running machine. As she said, it took all of about 10 minutes. As we got in the car to head home, Amy filled my arms with their freshly harvested corn and special white cucumbers. As if they hadn't already given us so much!
This kind of generosity, shown by Dave, Mary, Amy, Toby and so many other friends and neighbors (and even complete strangers) is one of the reasons we've fallen so deeply in love with our new home.
While we will never get to call ourselves Mainers, after a day of harvesting 100 pounds of wild blueberries and experiencing an immeasurable amount of generosity, we're starting to feel at home here in Maine.
Wild Maine Blueberry Muffins
This recipe is adapted from Cookie and Kate's raspberry muffin recipe. It makes such tender and tasty muffins, you can barely tell that they're healthyish. Here, I use coconut oil for the fat, something I've been loving lately in baked goods, and maple syrup instead of sugar. Yogurt, in my opinion, is the best dairy for muffins. You can use whatever berries you have on hand, whether fresh or frozen. If frozen, don't defrost, just toss with a little flour before folding them into the mix.
1 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pinch cardamom
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup Maine maple syrup
1/3 cup coconut oil, melted
2 eggs, beaten with a fork
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups wild Maine blueberries
Raw sugar, for sprikling
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place a rack in the center of the oven. Grease a muffin tin and set aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cardamom in a large bowl.
In another bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, coconut oil, eggs, vanilla extract and lemon zest.
Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until almost combined (some streaks should remain). Gently fold in the blueberries until just combined. Don't overmix.
Using a large cookie scoop, scoop the batter in to the prepared tins. Sprinkle the top with raw sugar. Bake until golden and springy when pressed, about 24 minutes.