The myrtille a.k.a. bilberry / Les myrtilles
So there’s this amazing fruit I’ve only ever had in France, though it grows in England and much of the rest of Europe: the myrtille, known in English primarily as the bilberry. (I refer you to the article on Wikipedia, the Source of All [or Most] Knowledge.) It is closely related to the blueberry and the huckleberry, which are of course found in North America. I believed for many years that it was actually a variant of the blueberry – and I suppose in a sense it is, since they’re in the same genus? (I don’t really know from biology) – but a variety that happened to be, as far as I’m concerned, far far far tastier. It looks like a much smaller blueberry, is a darker color, and has purple instead of greenish pulp – it can stain pretty badly. It’s somewhat more acidic than the blueberry. It is heavenly.
When I was a child my mother and I went on a lot of hikes through the Parc des Volcans – the chain of dormant volcanoes that is the primary geographical feature of the Puy de Dôme department (basically a county), the center of the region of Auvergne, where her hometown of Clermont-Ferrand is located. Myrtilles/bilberries grow in abundance on the slopes of these volcanoes.
We used to go berry-hunting – not just for myrtilles, but also for framboises (raspberries), mûres (blackberries) and fraises des bois (wild strawberries; literally “strawberries of the woods”). My favorite by far were the myrtilles. (Side note: it helped that, unlike wild raspberries, myrtilles never have worms in them.) On one of these expeditions I found a heavenly thing: an entire field of myrtilles. They grow on low ground-hugging plants (I believe they’re related to heather) – rather spiky, but who cared? I immediately plopped myself down in the exact center and started eating them by the handful. You know how you occasionally daydream of literally finding yourself surrounded by your favorite food? (Don’t tell me that’s just me.) Yeah. My mother found me some time later covered in purple and happy as a clam. Best. Hike. Ever.
Myrtilles are quite popular in France, despite the fact that (or so wikipedia tells me) they are difficult to cultivate because they crush more easily than blueberries. They are very commonly used in tartes and tartelettes (…small tarts), jam, and other berry-based sweets, as well as liqueurs. I was informed the other day by my local boulangère (lady baker) – who has, to my chagrin, figured out that I’m not entirely a native (or a particularly ignorant one), but that’s another story – that myrtilles are good for your eyesight (according to the internet there is some debate about the truth of this, but I feel fine assuming it’s true, because anything that delicious better be good for you).
So do I have a point in this post, besides enthusing about a fruit that is quite difficult to find in the States? Yes! It is blatant product placement! (I haven’t been paid, but oh well.) I feel kind of dirty pushing a branded product, but … myrtilles are worth it. There is at least one reliable source of myrtilles in your lives, o Americans: Bonne Maman’s so-called “wild blueberry” preserves. The name is a lie to attract people who would be like “wtf is a bilberry / myrtille?”; the stuff is actually myrtille jam. If you like berries and jam, get thee hither to thy grocery store.
I’m going to go back to snarfing myrtille tartelettes and myrtille jam on biscottes briochés (toasted slices of brioche) now.