If there's one thing to eat in Downeast Maine, this pie from Helen's Restaurant is it. We partnered with Verizon Wireless to share our visit to blueberry country in real time—and then track down that pie recipe.
Not to be dramatic, but I hadn't tasted a blueberry until I visited Welch Farms in Roque Bluffs, Maine late last month. These blueberries are unlike any version I'd ever encountered, minuscule orbs of tart, sweet, and perfect texture—perched on their little foot-high bushes.
In Maine, blueberries grow wild, and they're much more than work—they're a way of life. Maine's blueberry season, in August, sustains family businesses all year long (and yes, blueberry pie also does). When I went out to Roque Bluffs, a town in Downeast Maine—a section of Maine that is between Penobscot Bay to the Canadian-U.S. border—on Englishman's Bay and just an hour from Canada, I visited Lisa Hanscom who runs Welch Farm. Lisa and her family are 5th generation blueberry farmers, and on her farm, I saw firsthand the amount of hard labor and love that goes into this wild fruit.
I hopped in the passenger side of the golf cart that she drives around the farm and we headed up toward a bluff, rolling by some small cabins she's added to the property for vacation rentals, as well as her father, Wayne, driving the mechanical harvester they use for some of the property. As soon as we reached the top, there was a serious view, with a long sloping hill down to the water covered in blueberry bushes. Lisa explained that it's a good spot for wild blueberries because even when there's no rain, they get the fog from the bay rolling on in, which lends a little moisture relief to the berries in higher-than-normal August temperatures.
On our way back down, after we took a few wild turns near the rotating seagull cannon—it keeps the birds away, Lisa informed me—we got hung up on a rough patch and ended up walking the rest of the way back to the farmhouse and blueberry stand where they clean and de-stem all the little berries. On the way down, she introduced me to some of the workers who hand-rake bushes. Then she put me to work.
There are several layers to blueberry picking, but it all starts with the rake. A blueberry rake is shaped like a dustpan, but with its handle rotated over the scooper, and the scooper is made up of many prongs.
Lisa taught me how it's done: You hold the rake at a slight downward angle, stick it into the tangles of a blueberry bush, and then scoop upward, all in one fluid motion. You don't want to scoop to shallowly, or all you'll get is leaves and air. But scoop too deeply, and your rake will go straight into the dirt. It's hard on your arms and legs, and as I do it, I think of doing this over and over for hours on end, crouched over prickly bushes. Blueberries sold fresh are only harvested by hand, in an optimal section of the farm, while the ones that are harvested mechanically, as well as large swaths that are harvested by hand by crews, are sold to larger companies to go into their frozen bags.
Many of Lisa's fresh blueberries go straight to Helen's Restaurant in the neighboring town of Machias. (Lisa's mom also sells them by the quart across the street from the restaurant.) Helen's is renowned in the area for its food—and there's one thing that most people come in for: the blueberry pie. And it's not just any blueberry pie: There are two types, one top-crusted, the other piled high with fresh blueberries (1 1/2 quarts!) and at least an inch of whipped cream. When I visited, owner Julie Barker showed me how to make the fresh style, noting it was much more exciting to eat that version at the height of the season. And then she gave me the recipe to share (!) so that even when I'm not in Downeast Maine, I can enjoy a slice of it.
- 3 tablespoons frozen blueberries
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 ounce cornstarch
- 3 cups flour
- 1 1/2 cups shortening
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 1/2 quarts fresh blueberries (from Maine, if you can get 'em!)
- 1 cup blueberry gel
- 1 quart heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
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