Widespread and locally abundant on heaths and moors, and as the understorey in conifer woods in northern Europe. Ashrub with hairless twigs,, growing 20-50 cm (8-20 in) high. Leaves: oval, slightly toothed. Flowers: solitary, drooping, greenish-pink globes, April-June. Fruits: small, round, black and covered with bloom, July-Sept.
Also known as whortleberries and blaeberries in Scotland, bilberries transport you more thoroughly into the role of the hunter-gatherer than perhaps any other wild food. The fruit is virtually unknown in cultivation-the blueberries bought from greengrocers are larger and less flavoursome American species.
The bilberry may be more popular commercially if picking it were not so laborious. The shrub grows low, often largely concealed by dense heather, and the berries form in nothing like the concentrations of, say, blackberries. So even on the moors where the bush grows in abundance, gathering any quantity can involve the thorough searching of a fair-sized patch of land.
On parts of the Continent, bilberry gathering has been partially mechanised with the help of a large combing device known as a peigne, though this takes away much of the fun of hunting for the berries, the discovery of clusters under the leaves, the bloom rubbing away on one's fingers.
The succulent, winey berries may be eaten raw, but they also feature in recipes-some of the most interesting come from Yorkshire where they are made into pies, known as 'mucky-mouth pies', a feature of funeral teas.
Another Yorkshire touch with bilberries is add a few sprigs of mint to the stewed fruit and jams.
The two flavours complement each other perfectly.
A classic northern recipe which sets the fruits in a kind of Yorkshire pudding.
4 tbsp flour
1 large cup of milk
2 tbsp of brown sugar
250 g (8 oz) approx. of bilberries
Make a thinnish batter by beating the egg with the sugar and then slowly adding the milk. Stir in the sugar and the bilberries.
Pour into a greased tin.
Bake in a medium oven for 30 minutes.