Feeling Blue? Head for the hills

Sunday Journal reporter Andrew Quinn, left, with Hazel Hargan and community gardener and forager, Gareth Austin, picking wild blueberries near Ardmore on Friday morning. (DER3613SL530) Photo: Stephen Latimer
Sunday Journal reporter Andrew Quinn, left, with Hazel Hargan and community gardener and forager, Gareth Austin, picking wild blueberries near Ardmore on Friday morning. (DER3613SL530) Photo: Stephen Latimer

I swapped blackberries for blueberries but every word of Seamus Heaney’s poem came flooding back.

‘Blackberry Picking’ is Heaney’s recollection of searching out the ripened fruit in hedgerows of Bellaghy when he was a child.

In Heaney’s poem he talks about how “our hands were peppered with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s”; on a hill near Ardmore on Friday morning, I knew exactly what the late poet was getting at.

It might not have been “late August” but it was September 6 and picking blueberries on a heather covered hill was not a bad way to spend the morning.

Guiding me on my foraging expedition for wild blueberries was expert forager, community gardener and horticulturist, Gareth Austin; he knew where dark blue fruit lay in abundance.

I met with Gareth and the others in the car park beside St. Mary’s Chapel, Ardmore and piled into Gareth’s four wheel drive.

A few turns here and few turns there I found myself on a back road which caresses a hill near Ardmore. Not only was I about to go wild blueberry picking but the view of Derry, the River Foyle and Benbradagh was reason enough to have made the trip.

A rather large field gate was soon traversed and Gareth began to give us a crash course in what to look out for when searching for wild blueberries.

Admittedly, I wasn’t aware blueberries grew in Ireland. Up until Friday morning, my experience of blueberries was limited to small tubs in supermarkets from places like Poland and Peru, not Ardmore!

“It’s all about know what to look for,” said Gareth.

“Blueberries need acidic ground with plenty of moisture so if you’re able to spot these kind of places when you’re out foraging, chances are you will find blueberries.

“If I can give you any tip, it would be to go down to the base of the plant and you will definitely find berries because this is a place that the birds will not have reached... yet,” laughed Gareth.

The ground was damp but happily, the rain didn’t show its face and before long, the blueberries were everywhere.

After taking a mental note of what the leaves of the blueberry plant looked like, I started to see a plethora of berries - clearly the Ardmore birds didn’t know about Gareth’s secret foraging spot.

Hazel Hargan from Eglinton also came along on the foraging expedition.

Hazel and her children helped Gareth forage for wild raspberries last month and it was clear from her enthusiasm that she was equally as excited about hunting for wild blueberries.

“I, like you, didn’t know wild blueberries grew here. I knew you could get blackberries and wild raspberries but I never thought wild blueberries were available on the side of a road which is essentially only a few miles away from where I live,” said Hazel happily.

“I remember when I was a young girl we would have spent our summers hunting for gooseberries and raiding orchards for crab apples - young children don’t do that anymore, so that’s why I try to bring the family along to as many of these things as possible.”

Myself and Hazel were making good work of our foraging; we’d both filled about half of two re-used plastic take away containers. Given the fact we were both wild blueberry foraging novices I thought we were doing well but then Gareth appeared with two containers filled to the top with blueberries. And then, just to add insult to injury Gareth went and found a few wild raspberries on the way back to the car.

Gareth was right, once you know what you’re looking for it just jumps at you. On the way back to the car, I found some wild sorrel - I knew what to look for. What better way to spend a sunny morning than on a hill in Ardmore, chatting and picking wild blueberries and I like Seamus Heaney, “I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not”.

To find out more about Gareth Austin’s local foraging expeditions visit www.garethaustin.com