There were times during my childhood when we holidayed during the new school term, in September. It seemed to me, as an eight-year-old, that we were indulging in some kind of secret activity. In those days the holiday was in Wales, which still remains my favourite country.
It was different in September. There were no families as the children had to go to school. It was often warmer in September than August. Best of all though, was the abundance of bilberries growing in the poor soil of heathland with heather. They were dark and juicy and unlike any fruit or berry I had seen at home. To me, they were secret, special and must have had magical powers.
Years later I remembered the little berries and researched them in the hope of growing them in my own garden. They are difficult to cultivate so they will remain forever the fruit of the Welsh hills. But I also found out how valuable they were to my ancestors.
The calendar has shifted a bit over the last fifteen hundred years or so, as has the climate. So much so that bilberries were harvested throughout July in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times. It was a job that the children could do, their little fingers could pluck the berries from the low-growing shrubs without crushing them. Quite a tedious job but there were other benefits. Spending so much time in the sunshine hunting for these little jewels often led young people into courtship. The story goes that a young lady would bake a bilberry pie for the young man who caught her eye and give it to him during the celebrations that followed.
On the last Sunday of July a great feast took place where people ate the bilberry produce. Pies, jams, tarts and wine were no doubt consumed as well as the general merriment of the day. On the 1st August the Celtic peoples celebrated their god Lugh, in a festival named Lughnasadh. This was the first harvest festival of the year and the crop of bilberries was said to indicate how well the rest of the crops would fare in their harvests later in the year. During the celebrations, people would climb hills where bilberries grew. I love that.
Bilberry Sunday continued for a few centuries in Ireland, but even that has died out now. However, I am pleased to see that the supermarket Tesco has a bilberry pie recipe on its website. Maybe Bilberry Sunday will be resurrected. It is in my household anyway.
© 2016 A.J. Sefton
Bilberry pie with cream recipe (from Tesco)
250g Tesco lighter ready rolled shortcrust pastry
a little plain flour, for dusting
500g bilberries (use blueberries if not available)
150g caster sugar
juice of ½ lemon
1 small egg, beaten
200ml reduced fat thick cream, for serving
Serves 4 * 15 mins to prepare * 1 hr 15 mins to cook * 570 calories per serving * freezable
Combine the cornflour, bilberries, lemon juice and sugar (apart from the 1 tbsp) in a large mixing bowl. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 190°C.
Roll the pastry out on a lightly floured surface to 1cm thickness. Line a 9 inch ceramic pie plate with the pastry, cutting off the overhanging pastry (of which there should be a lot). Gather the excess pastry into a ball and roll out to 1cm thickness roughly and reserve to one side.
Fill the pastry with the bilberry mixture. Cut the pastry into long strips that will act as decoration across the top of the pie. Arrange in a wide lattice pattern making sure each strip of pastry reaches the edge of the pie plate.
Seal well and brush the exposed parts of pastry with the beaten egg. Bake for 45-50 minutes until the pastry is cooked and the filing is glazed and hot.
Remove and allow to rest for a few minutes before serving with a small bowl of the thick cream on the side.