After our unusually wet June, blueberry season is finally here, with a vengeance. At least that's the case at Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wis., the absurdly scenic destination for blueberry (and currant and gooseberry) lovers.
Unpredictable weather kept me away from my original Friday morning blueberry picking plans. When I called the farm on Saturday to inquire about the day's conditions, I got the one-word response that every U-pick-er wants to hear: "Awesome."
That was an understatement. When we arrived an hour later, the parking lot was jammed, and the farm's nine miles of blueberry bushes were lined with pickers of all ages. My good side was happy to see so many fellow blueberry enthusiasts patronizing the farm, my not-so-generous side could think of only one thing: Competition. When we were instructed to head to the far end of the farm, I became slightly discouraged. Were we too late? Were the best berries already in someone else's hands?
Hardly. I've been visiting the farm for a decade, and I've never seen such abundance. Not all of the farm's 14 varieties of blueberries are having a banner year, but many "are as good as we've seen," said co-owner John Cuddy. No kidding. Up and down the row I was working, the bushes were heavy with berries, and the task was so easy that it became the U-pick version of shooting fish in a barrel. In less than an hour we picked more than we know what to do with.
The farm's landscape, tucked into the wooded curves of the Rush River valley, couldn't have a more breathtaking setting, and John and his wife Terry -- who treat their customers like long-lost friends -- do everything in their power to make the setting even more beautiful. Horticulturalists specializing in hollyhocks, clematis and coneflowers could make a study of the couple's lushly planted gardens. Pack a picnic and spread it out on one of the garden's tables.
A few housekeeping details: The farm is open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Because the season is so unpredictable, always -- always -- call before setting out. This year's blueberry price is $4.75 per pound. There's a limited supply of pre-picked berries, priced at $9 per pound; best to call ahead and pre-order.
Post-picking, we zipped into nearby Maiden Rock, a tiny town that hugs the dramatic bluffs ringing Lake Pepin. It's probably five minutes south from Blueberry Valhalla, and so worth the quick diversion. For two reasons.
First, I can't imagine being in the neighborhood and not stopping in to survey the counter at the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop. Baker/owner Sandra Thielman's handicraft sells fast -- another motivation for making an early start to the farm -- and whatever you purchase (if there's quiche, or a berry pie, buy it, by the slice or the whole pie), it's best enjoyed on the bakery's welcoming front porch, which overlooks Thielman's well-tended flower garden. We arrived mid-afternoon and found a fairly picked-over inventory.
The shop's signature lavender-ginger sugar cookies were already gone, but we did luck into a handful of the chewy, raisin-filled oatmeal cookies (a steal at $1) and a few of the cardamom rolls (pictured, above), a new addition to the Smiling Pelican but familiar to old-timers who remember them from the Jenny Lind Cafe in Stockholm, Wis., the next town down the river. Jenny Lind owner Ruth Raich is now giving Thielman a much-needed hand, and one of her contributions is the revival of these tender, not-too-sweet and better-than-cinnamon-pull-apart rolls, with their bracing cardamom bite. I can't believe they're only $2.50. By the time we returned home, I was consumed with regret: Why didn't we buy more cardamom rolls? And that last (and gorgeous) quiche that was sitting on the counter and calling our names?
The other reason: A leisurely browse through the gallery-like Cultural Cloth, a wowser of a store that showcases hand-crafted textiles, all imported by women artists from around the world. To say that there is no other place like it is an understatement. (Note to Thursday blueberry harvesters: both the Smiling Pelican and Cultural Cloth are open Friday through Sunday).
Back to blueberries. Because I've been an annual visitor for more than a decade, my brain habitually associates "U-pick blueberries" with "Rush River Produce." But there are of course many pick-them-yourself blueberry farms in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Here's a list, offered with unsolicited advice: Don't make the journey without calling first.
BLUEBERRIES -- MINNESOTA
Meeker County: Leafblad Produce, 67784 330 St., Watkins, 320-693-2486
BLUEBERRIES -- WESTERN WISCONSIN
As for what we plan to do with our bounty, that's easy: Bake. I'm sure that this impressive blueberry-lemon-sour cream coffee cake is part of our not-so-distant future, along with this uncomplicated blueberry-pecan coffee cake. My colleague Kim Ode's formula for blueberry pierogi has caught my attention. Oh, I'll definitely spend a few mornings with these blueberry-cornmeal pancakes, an oldie-but-goodie recipe that always comes to mind when I see a box of Rush River Produce berries in our refrigerator.
CORNMEAL BLUEBERRY PANCAKES
Note: I've always loved this pancakes recipe, and pull out my batter-spattered copy when blueberry season rolls around. They're from a 2007 Taste story featuring Scott Rosenbaum, who was then the chef at Wilde Roast Cafe in Minneapolis. "When I was growing up in Nebraska, my granddad would make these when we would spend the weekend with him," said Rosenbaum. "They're so good we would eat them plain off the griddle, with lots of butter and maybe a little sorghum molasses." Rosenbaum suggests preparing the batter the night before and refrigerating it in a tightly sealed container. "That way the cornmeal softens a bit more," he said. "Although they're just fine if you use the batter right away, they'll have a nice little crunch. That's why the recipe calls for boiling water, because it begins that softening process." To use frozen berries, place them in a strainer and rinse until water runs clear. Spread on a paper towel to dry.
1/2 c. flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 c. boiling water
1/4 c. whole milk
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
1 c. fresh blueberries, or thawed frozen berries
Preheat griddle over medium-high heat (350 degrees if using an electric griddle). In a small bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder and reserve. In a large bowl, stir together cornmeal, salt and sugar. Add boiling water, stir and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in milk, butter and egg. Add flour mixture and stir until smooth. Pour batter onto a hot griddle. Sprinkle pancakes with blueberries and cook until pancake is bubbly all over and edges are crisp. Turn pancakes and cook an additional 2 minutes, until pancake is golden brown. Serve with butter and pure maple syrup.