Bilberries are small, round, dark blue berries originating in northern Europe. These tiny fruits are edible, sweet-tasting, and packed with phytonutrients and other healthy compounds.
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What is a Bilberry?
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is the round berry of the Ericaceae family that grows on short bushes. The fruit is native to the northern areas of Europe and Asia, the northern United States, and Canada.
It also goes by various common names, including European blueberry, whortleberry, huckleberry, Airelle, Arándano, and Black Whortle. It’s believed that the name bilberry originates from the Danish word “bolleba,” meaning ‘dark berry.’
Bilberries are dark-blue to purple and have a smooth circular outline. Most people confuse bilberries with American blueberries since they look like. However, bilberries are the wild predecessors of blueberries.
Bilberries have a sweet fruity, tangy flavor, making them a favorite among foraging enthusiasts. And due to this delicious taste, bilberries feature tasty treats like pies, cakes, and ice creams.
The History of Bilberries
It’s believed that bilberries originated in Northern Europe. The berries have also grown in the wild for centuries in Asia, Canada, and North America.
Bilberries’ medicinal value was discovered in the Middle Ages. The dried fruit and leaves were to make herbal medicine to relieve diseases like urinary problems, diarrhea, diabetes, and mouth inflammation. Also, since bilberries are an excellent source of Vitamin C, they were traditionally used to prevent scurvy.
Bilberry fruit is featured in traditional delicacies, including pies, jams, and tart fillings. History also shows that British pilots snacked on bilberry jam during World War II to boost their night vision.
Today the fruit is widely marketed as bilberry supplements, and it’s believed to be a remedy for cataracts, varicose veins, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and other conditions.
What Does a Bilberry Taste
Bilberry is intensely fruity, sweet, and tangy when fully ripened. But the fruit has a sweet, slightly acidic taste when raw. Hence, it’s ideal for making liqueurs.
When cooked, the bilberry fruit presents a delicious, deep-flavored taste. And it releases lots of sweet juice into the meal. Hence, drain it first before using it in desserts such as pies to prevent sogginess.
How to Tell When a Bilberry is Ripe
Here’s how to tell that bilberry is ripe and ready to eat:
|If bilberry is bluish-black, with gray dusting, it is fully ripened. The fruit is unripe if it appears bright green.
|Under-ripe bilberries are tart, while ripe and ready-to-eat bilberries have an intense sweet-tangy flavor.
|Texture and Firmness
|Gently squeeze the bilberry with your fingers to confirm its ripeness. Unripe bilberries are firm, but they become softer when ripe.
|Ripe bilberries have a sweet, floral smell. So, if it smells nothing, the fruit is unripe. But if the smell is musty or sour, the bilberry is spoilt and should be discarded.
Are Bilberries and Blueberries Related?
Yes. Bilberries and blueberries are closely related; after all, they look alike. Furthermore, the two fruits belong to the same family, Ericaceae, and genus, Vaccinium.
Here are some similarities and differences between bilberries and blueberries:
- Both grow singly or in pairs and not in clusters.
- Both have high tannin levels, responsible for their dark-blue color.
- Bilberries are smaller and darker than blueberries.
- Bilberries have a more intense flavor than blueberries.
- Bilberry pulp is light green, while blueberry pulp is purple or red.
- Bilberries are softer and juicier than blueberries.
- Bilberries are more nutritionally-dense than blueberries.
Can I Eat Raw Bilberries?
Yes, you can eat this fruit raw; but only when fully ripe, as underripe bilberries are tart.
People often snack on raw (but ripe) bilberries directly from their bushes. But they also use the berries in their raw form as additions to desserts like ice creams and sorbets. Still, bilberries are often used in fresh fruit juices.
Cooking with Bilberries
Thanks to their immense and unique flavor, bilberries have been in the food scene for ages.
Here’s how to prepare bilberries before cooking:
- After picking the berries, remove any stalks, leaves, or stems.
- Place the bilberries in a colander and rinse them well under cold, running water.
- Pat them dry with a kitchen towel or paper towel.
Bilberry fruits are an excellent addition to most blueberry dishes (especially desserts). You can use them to make jams, jellies, pies, sorbets, icecreams, liqueurs, or wines.
Here are a few dishes you can prepare using bilberries:
Bilberry and Hazelnut Muffins make a perfect breakfast or teatime snack. These yummy treats feature the delicious, intense flavor of bilberries and the mellow, nutty taste of hazelnuts. To avoid fogginess, soak your bilberries overnight before baking your muffins.
Bilberry Upside-down Cake will tease your tastebuds any time. This moist sponge cake doesn’t require any frosting or decoration, as the flavorful and colorful bilberries will do the trick. Have it as an everyday cake during your afternoon tea or for dessert.
Bilberry Pie is a traditional dessert that never gets old. This easy-to-prepare pie is served while still warm with cream or vanilla ice cream. As you dig into this classic treat, you’ll marvel at the deep bilberry flavor.
How to Store Bilberries
Bilberries spoil or damage quickly, so they’re best stored chilled in the fridge.
To store fresh bilberries for a longer period of time, spread the unwashed berries on a baking sheet and cover them with parchment paper. Then, place the berries in a freezer bag and freeze for up to 6 months.
For dried bilberries, keep them in sealed (airtight) jars and store them in a cool, dry place, like your pantry or cupboard. Dried bilberries will last for four to 12 months.
Nutritional Benefits of Bilberries
Bilberries are nutrient-packed berries believed to provide numerous health benefits. So it’s no wonder these tiny fruits have been used for medicinal purposes for ages and are now widely marketed as dietary supplements.
Bilberries are a rich source of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. For instance, they contain generous amounts of Vitamin C, which has antioxidant properties. They are also a good source of vitamins A, K, and B3, dietary fiber, sodium, protein, and carbohydrates.
Bilberries have bioactive compounds responsible for the fruit’s medicinal properties. Firstly, the fruits contain high levels of chemicals called tannins, with oxidative properties. Hence, it’s believed that bilberries help minimize inflammation (swelling) and lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels. In addition, tannins also relieve diarrhea and enhance blood circulation in persons with diabetes.
You’ll also find many polyphenols like flavonoids and anthocyanins in bilberries. These compounds are antioxidants that fight free radicals causing oxidative stress in cells. Hence, they help prevent chronic conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
In addition, bilberries are known to help with vision (mainly night vision) because of their anthocyanidin composition. The fruit also relieves and delays eye problems, such as retinopathy, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration.
Another health benefit of bilberries is treating atherosclerosis, a buildup of cholesterol or fats in blood vessels that causes cardiovascular disease. The flavonoids (quercetin and resveratrol) in bilberries reduce the risk of atherosclerosis by preventing LDL (low-density lipoprotein) oxidation.
Despite being used as herbal and alternative medicine, bilberries haven’t been approved for use as a medicine by the FDA. So, bilberry extracts are only used in dietary supplements to prevent various conditions.
However, numerous clinical studies and trials are ongoing to investigate and confirm the medicinal value of bilberries.
On the other hand, bilberry supplements can have some side effects. For instance, high doses might cause nausea and abdominal discomfort. Also, bilberry leaf extracts may cause considerable weight loss.
Although there are no verified drug interactions related to bilberries, it’s not advisable to take bilberry supplements together with supplements, especially those that lower blood sugar levels or prevent blood clotting. Also, pregnant or breastfeeding women should seek advice from healthcare professionals before taking bribery supplements to avoid any adverse effects of bilberry.
Where to Purchase Bilberries
Bilberries are available in farmers’ markets and gourmet stores, especially during summer when it’s the fruit’s peak season. Depending on the location, harvesting of bilberries starts from July till September.