Anne Byrn's Alma Blueberry Bread
In this edition of Anne Byrn's Taste of a Place column, the bestselling author takes us on an agricultural journey through Southern farmlands that ends with a sweet and satisfying recipe for blueberry bread.
Summertime blueberries take me back to Georgia. A true taste of a place, they evolved in the late 1970s when the native Rabbiteye blueberry, which has grown wild along streams and rivers, was successfully cultivated in the loamy soil of southeast Georgia. Farmers, researchers, extension agents, writers, and home cooks were thrilled that the sweet, distinct flavor of the local blueberry could be enjoyed every summer, in cobblers, on cereal, out of the hand.
I was writing about food for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when these berries were first introduced in a big way. They had been grown earlier by Southern farmers, but you didn't see them mentioned much in recipes before the late '70s. When they were cultivated in southeast Georgia, they really took off. And this agricultural epicenter of the state was unique, no doubt about it. Here Vidalia onions, blueberries, pecans and sweet corn could all thrive. Why this area? What is it about southeastern Georgia that allows crops like these to grow and thrive?
Georgia Grown Blueberries
Curious, I picked up the phone and called Holly Chute, senior Georgia Grown executive chef for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. I knew Holly years earlier when she was the accomplished chef for many of Georgia's governors at the executive residence on West Paces Ferry Road.
She likened the climate and growing conditions of southeastern Georgia to the Mediterranean. "The soil down there is less clay-like than the rest of the state," said Holly. "There is more sand in the soil. It really is almost a Mediterranean-type climate which is why they've had luck growing olives, too."
And crops are assured water from underground drip irrigation fed by aquifers, better known as the Florida Aquifer. This body of saturated underground limestone stores water and is the source of irrigation water for farms in Southeast Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida. It alternately draws water from and feeds water back into rivers, creeks, and springs.
Today, a blueberry crop can be more adversely affected by late spring cold temperatures than water issues. And that was the case this season, as this year's crop of Rabbiteye and Southern High Bush berries was smaller than usual. But that didn't stop the Blueberry Festival from taking place the first Saturday in June in Alma, the Bacon County city known as the Blueberry Capital. This is where the heart of blueberry cultivation began in the 1970s. It is Blueberry Central.
Blueberry Ideas for Summer Entertaining
Holly Chute's favorite ways to use fresh, local blueberries are in cobblers, then jams and jellies, and also on salads. She is seeing the fruit more than ever on green salads, or served along with watermelon on a white platter for a red, white and blue salad.
One of my favorite ways to use fresh blueberries is to combine them with blackberries for a berry crisp. Here is how I do it:
Place about 4 cups fresh blueberries and 2 cups fresh blackberries or raspberries in a large bowl. Add from 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar, depending on how sweet you want the cobbler, and a pinch of cinnamon. Toss to coat the berries well. Turn them into a 13- by 9-inch casserole that has been greased with soft butter. Now make an easy crisp topping:
Place 1 cup flour and 1 cup brown sugar in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, a pinch of cinnamon, and 10 tablespoons butter. Pulse until the mixture comes together in clumps. Add about 1 cup oats. Pulse again to combine. Scatter this crumbly topping over the berries, and place the pan in a 375-degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until bubbly. Serve warm with ice cream.
Or, you can try your hand at making an easy blueberry bread. The following is a recipe I've baked for a long time. It was called Alma Blueberry Bread when given to me years ago. It is perfect for summer breakfasts or baking as a gift. You can eat it warm and slathered with butter or cold. You can tuck it in the freezer. It is the summer version of cranberry bread, quick and ready to show off summer blueberries and remind us of their story in the South. Enjoy!
Anne Byrn's Alma Blueberry Bread
Serves: 10 to 12
Hands On Time:
1/2 cup fresh orange juice plus 1 teaspoon zest
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/4 cup fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
To make the bread: Place a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan.
In a small saucepan, combine the orange juice, zest, water and butter. Place over medium heat, and heat the mixture, stirring, until the butter has melted.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg until slightly thickened. Whisk in the orange juice mixture.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and stir until smooth. Fold in the blueberries. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake until the top springs back when lightly pressed, 35 to 40 minutes. Let the bread cool in the pan while making the glaze.
To make the glaze: In a small bowl, lightly mash the blueberries to release some of their juices. Stir in the sugar and orange juice until smooth.
Run a knife around the edges of the loaf, and invert once and then again on a wire rack so that the loaf is right side up. Spoon the glaze over the warm loaf, let cool for 20 minutes, then slice and serve while still slightly warm.