This was my entry in the finals of the Carol Trewin Food Writers Award 2013. Although The Blueberry Brothers are based in Devon, not Gloucestershire, it was discovering their story that inspired me to continue food writing.
My husband recently went rogue with our weekly shopping and went ‘off list’. This is always dangerous. Normally it means the purchase of another expensive gadget from the man crèche section of the supermarket but this time I found myself adding yet another large box of porridge oats to our collection. This left me in a quandary. Being a seasonal breakfast consumer I normally reserve porridge eating for dark, cold winter mornings and spend the summer with something light and fluffy for the first meal of the day. To avoid drowning in porridge oats clearly I needed to find a way of updating my porridge into a summery breakfast dish.
Amongst various other unlisted items in the week’s shopping were two small plastic punnets of blueberries. Now I was slightly suspicious of these. Unlike strawberries or raspberries I don’t remember watching them grow in fields, picking them as a child or even eating them regularly in the tarts, puddings and jams that my mum used to make. I don’t recall seeing them at all. However in the interests of summer porridge I began to use them. I stirred them in, sprinkled them over the top and added a couple of tablespoons of Greek yoghurt. I started snacking on them in the evenings, amazed at the powerful punch of flavour that a tiny little blue berry could pack. I learnt that the star shape on the underside of each berry comes from something called the ‘settle’, a small star shaped cup on the blueberry bush where the blueberry grows. In short, I started to become a bit of a blueberry fan. And then I discovered that blueberries are being grown locally, in a gorgeous sunny cleft of Dartmoor at the family home of Nick and Toby Hewison.
The Devon village of Lustleigh is picture perfect. Bright blue skies tossed with fluffy white clouds, quiet ridges of Dartmoor along the skyline and narrow country lanes striking the fear of god into the reverse phobic car driver. Surrounded by family photographs and mementos, and with a background in marketing and branding for major companies, Nick is non-stop enthusiastic about all things blueberry.
Nick and Toby, also known as The Blueberry Brothers, began growing their first crop of blueberries in 2005. The Hewison family has strong farming genes with connections to Wales, Oxfordshire and the Orkney Isles and it was their mother Jenny who planted the first blueberry bushes at the family home in the 1990’s. A keen gardener, she instilled into her sons a love of food and the outdoors, and a talent for spotting business opportunities. In the late 1960’s Jenny and her husband started a business growing Christmas trees on their land which was highly unusual at the time and proved to be very successful. Now it was their sons turn.
The Blueberry Brother’s first aim was merely to have a seasonal crop of fruit. It turned out that they had a unique selling point and soon found themselves increasingly popular, producing blueberries and selling them at local farmers markets. Customers were amazed that blueberries could be grown in the UK and Nick continues to encounter this disbelief on a regular basis. He believes that this is evidence of our pervading societal disconnection with how food is both grown and produced, from the pollination cycle and relationship between plant and pollinator to the true meaning of words like ‘organic’ and ‘sustainability’. Nick and Toby discovered that they had the perfect soil for growing blueberries, (slightly acidic) and that the flavour of the berries was fantastic, particularly in the first two weeks of the season from July to September. In a claim to fame their berries were even discovered by Michael Caines, the Devon based two Michelin starred super chef, when he sampled one that a member of his team was eating. Today, the Blueberry Brothers blueberries continue to be amongst the breakfast offerings at the luxury country house hotel Gidleigh Park, which was named best British restaurant in 2010.
After an enviable three years cornering the local blueberry market, competition from other producers began to arise. With these changes in supply and demand and the rising cost of petrol, Nick and Toby didn’t have enough cultivated land to be commercially successful. They had also discovered that blueberry bushes can be fickle things. On the one hand they are rough- tough, living to a ripe old age and capable of withstanding very low temperatures. But prune them too much, plant them in just the wrong type of soil and they are capable of sulking for a long time. They’re also pretty selfish, not wanting to share any water with grass or weeds, and as such need to sit in their own individual, specially cleared patch of ground. This means a single blueberry bush needs a lot of care and attention in order to produce its fruit and commercial blueberry production is an exceptionally tough business. Whilst buying products from small artisan producers is very idyllic and romantic, it needs a strong coating in reality and Nick and Toby had some tough decisions to make – where was their blueberry business going and how were they going to make it work.
The answer came, as all the best answers traditionally do, in a bar. This bar happened to be in America, where blueberries are very popular as they are indigenous to the land and have been cultivated there since the 1900’s. Native American Indians use a mix of animal fat, cranberries and blueberries to make something called pemmican which is basically indestructible, everlasting meatloaf. Most of the research carried out into the health benefits of blueberry consumption is also American, and blueberries have been found to be rich in anthocyanins , compounds which have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Anthocyanins have been linked to memory improvements in older adults and a reduced risk of heart attacks in women.
Nick and Toby had just paid a visit to the unlikely sounding ‘Blueberry World’ in rural Maine which, according to Nick, is surrounded by concrete domes of various sizes, all painted blue. Nobody was queuing to get in but inside they discovered anything and everything that could possibly contain blueberries, from cosmetics and toiletries to pies, juices and cookery books devoted entirely to the little blue berries.
Blueberry and Lime jam
Just like their parents before them, Nick and Toby had a light bulb moment and spotted a business opportunity. After starting out as two brothers growing a limited number of blueberries on their own small plot of land, they were inspired to think bigger and started work on a range of their own great tasting, quirky and original blueberry products. The first was blueberry beer but the range soon expanded to include blueberry cheese, blueberry brownies, prize winning giant squidgy blueberry muffins, frangipane and blueberry tarts and blueberry and lime jam. Excitedly in development are blueberry chocolates, blueberry vodka, blueberry marzipan fruits and potentially blueberry cosmetics. So far this enterprise has been very successful and the products are currently sold at farmers markets, food festivals, local shops and cafes, with the brothers own blueberries in the jam and others sourced from all over, sometimes fresh, sometimes frozen. The exceptionally popular blueberry and lime jam goes from sharp to sweet, with whole blueberries providing texture and leaving the taste of zingy lime on your tongue. The frangipane and blueberry tarts consist of crisp, sweet pastry covered in a shiny glaze with a cool, almondy dense interior and pockets of blueberry tang.
The Blueberry Brothers journey so far has been a steep learning curve with highs and lows. As new products are developed and international distribution mentioned they would love to grow more blueberries and expand the business, using blueberries from all over the world and selling their products far and wide. In keeping with their family history, Nick and Toby are also very keen not to lose the local side of their business. They strongly believe in increasing the viability of the village community as a whole, and would like the future to include employing skilled, local workers and offering career progression. As Nick says, ‘The one thing I’ve learnt is that the reaction to blueberries is always positive. It is about happiness. And that’s the core of what we are about.’
I am now a committed blueberry lover and enjoying my new found blueberry knowledge. Consumer awareness is more important than ever before, particularly in light of recent food scares, and the more questions we can ask and the more knowledge we gain can only help us to connect back to the food chain and make informed food choices.
Now the only problem left to solve is how to persuade my husband that Maine is very nice this time of year.