Sunday, 25 July 2010

Black and blue ripple, a bilberry smack in the mouth.

Bilberry season (August-September) is still a few weeks away but I can’t wait any longer. Bilberry pie is one of my fondest childhood food memories. When I was a kid we used to go up onto the moors or Sutton Bank to pick bilberries. It used to take the best part of a day to collect enough as the bushes were always sparsely populated with fruit and spread out over a wide area. Coupled with the fact they are so low to the ground means this inevitably becomes a long and backbreaking day – even for a small boy. You would also be guaranteed to be dyed purple from head to foot by the end of the day – always a bonus to a small child. Posh people had a clever bit of kit called a ‘scrabbler’ – basically a scoop with a toothed comb at the end which meant you could scoop up huge amounts in no time. We had sticky little fingers instead. Bilberry pie is one of those rare dishes that are actually worth going through all that hassle needed to acquire the ingredients and prepare them.

Vaguely related to the much blander blueberry it goes by many names; whortleberries, myrtle berries (from its Latin name Vaccinium myrtillus), whinberries and blaeberries (because blae is Scots Gaelic for blue - apparently). However, around here it is known as the bilberry and the local variation of the pie is called ‘mucky-mouth’ pie, for obvious reasons. The French have their own version, the ‘Tarte Aux Myrtilles’ (which sounds totally gay, but probably tastes fantastic). I may well have a go at trying to make that at some point in the not too distant future.

However, it is late July and I want my bilberry fix now! I thought about growing my own but apparently they are virtually impossible/a right pain in the arse to cultivate – to the point where nobody even tries any more (bang goes another brilliant idea). I have however, ordered some boring old blueberries in pots for the patio instead.

Luckily bilberries are big in Poland, which means that if you have a Polish shop nearby (and the chances are that you do) then you’ll be able to find the Krakus branded jars of bilberries in syrup (you can often find these in Morrisons and Waitrose as well, although they only seem to appear erratically). The Krakus ones are brilliant as they’ve done all the hard work for you and even provided syrup.

I was given a few handfuls of blackcurrants by my gran and had frozen them until I could come up with a suitable use for them. My brother bought me a rather
good book of ice cream recipes for my birthday (better than socks) and I had been reading up on various tricks and techniques. I hatched a cunning plan, bilberry & blackcurrant ripple', which it turns out, is possibly even more dastardly than triple choc. Mwahahahah…..

My recipe for bilberry & blackcurrant ripple

4 egg yolks (5 if very small)
300ml semi skimmed milk
Vanilla pod
1 teaspoon of cornflour (cornstarch)

1x460g jar of Krakus bilberries in syrup
300ml of double cream

150g frozen blackcurrants (probably half this amount would be enough)
15g caster sugar
About 4 tablespoons of water
2 tablespoons of blackcurrant jam (optional)
1 tablespoon of cassis (optional)

Start off by making the blackcurrant syrup for the ripple. Place the blackcurrants in a saucepan with 3-4 tablespoons of water and 15g of caster sugar (or 10% of the weight of fruit), heat until soft and mushy (or if frozen about 10-15 minutes). I added a couple of heaped teaspoons of blackcurrant jam at this point – mainly because I happened to have some handy and it seemed like a good idea. You could also try adding a drop of cassis - but I forgot this time. Strain through a sieve into a small bowl, pressing hard with either the back of a spoon or a pestle to get every last drop of juice out. Cover with clingfilm and put aside to cool, then chill until ready to ripple.

Next make the custard, this is the bit I always have problems with and always manage to curdle it. (This custard recipe is basically nicked from the ice cream machine book.) Heat 300ml of semi skimmed milk in a saucepan with a vanilla pod if you have one (I had a couple saved in sugar from previous recipes). Bring to almost boiling point, then take off the heat and allow the vanilla to infuse for about 30 minutes. Then remove the vanilla pod and retain for future use.

In a bowl beat 4 or 5 egg yolks (I used 5 because mine were tiny, but 4 normal sized ones should be adequate) with 75g of caster sugar and about 1 level teaspoon of cornflour (even though I invested in some nice measuring spoons I stupidly forgot to level it and dumped a huge heaped teaspoon in). Beat until nice and light coloured – I think the proper term is something to do with ribbons, I dunno, what-ever! Bring the milk back up to the boil and then slowly add to the eggs, whisking all the time. Don’t use an electric whisk for this bit (like I stupidly did) or everything will be so frothy you won’t be able to see when the custard is ready and it will curdle. Now pour back into the saucepan and heat slowly, stirring constantly until the custard coats the back of your wooden spoon. Pour into a bowl and cover the surface with cling film (lay it directly onto the surface to prevent a skin forming, don’t stretch it across the bowl like a drum), set aside and when cool chill in the fridge until needed.

Because I was using bilberries from a jar in syrup I just had to sieve them. If you manage to get fresh ones then make a fruit syrup as per the instructions above for blackcurrants. One other thing that distinguishes bilberries from the lesser blueberry is that they have incredibly small and gritty little seeds. You need to sieve/strain/force the bilberries through a very fine mesh. A bog-standard sieve will not be fine enough (I discovered) and so if you are unprepared like me then you’ll need to improvise something to strain it through. The seeds are not as hard and irritating as raspberry seeds, they won’t get stuck in your teeth but they will make the texture a little bit gritty so you’ll appreciate the results more if you make the effort to properly strain them out, but it won’t be a disaster if you can’t (come to think of it you might be able to grind them in a mortar and pestle – haven’t tried it but it might be worth a go). Once the syrup is strained then cover the bowl and refrigerate until needed.

When everything is suitably chilled then whisk/beat/whip 300ml of double cream until it makes soft peaks, this will increase the overall volume of the final ice cream mixture. It is preferable to do this in a large jug or bowl with a lip so that can easily pour everything straight into your ice cream maker when the time comes. Next add the bilberry syrup and whisk some more. Finally fold in the custard and mix well, (you may have to pour your custard through a sieve if like me you curdled it) the colour will keep changing from bluish purple to pink, to blue-grey and back to purple as you mix – it’s like something out of Willy Wonka’s R&D department.

Pour the whole lot (I had about 1100ml of stuff by this point according to my measuring jug) into your ice cream maker and churn for about 15-20 minutes, it will increase in volume again so make sure you decant it into a 1.5 or 2litre container as the blackcurrant ripple will add to the volume also (I probably had twice as much blackcurrant as I actually needed and ended up not using it all – it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days and goes great poured over vanilla ice cream or used as a very runny jam). To get the ripple effect, scoop a few spoons of ice cream into your container, then a couple of spoons of the blackcurrant syrup, keep alternating. Once the tub is filled then swirl the blade of a knife through the mixture a couple of times – don’t go mad or you’ll end up mixing it too much, put a lid on it and freeze. I couldn’t wait and tried it after two hours and it wasn’t firm enough, the next day it was rock solid and needed a hour in the fridge to soften up enough to scoop properly. The taste is fantastic but then I am biased because I’d eat a dead badger if it were dipped in bilberry syrup. Mmmmmmbadgery….

Update: I think the calibration/colour saturation on my monitor is out of whack as the actual colour is somewhere between these two photos (although they were taken on different days with scoops from different parts of the tub and completely different proportions of ice cream to ripple so who knows whats going on...)


  1. I LOVE the sound of Tarte Aux Myrtilles even if it is a little 'gay'... the ice cream looks so good but I honestly don't think i've ever eaten bilberry's before, so I guess i'm off to my local Polish shop x

  2. I've changed the photo as the calibration on my monitor seems to have gone out of whack and I don't think the colours were quite right in the previous pic.

    Bilberries are a very 'Northern' thing (probably because they only seem to grow on moorland). I think there's a recipe somewhere on the net for Haworth biberry pie, supposedly as eaten by the Brontes. I recall reading that when Morrisons supermarket expanded into the South (by buying up Safeway) they promised to keep their 'Northern' identity and continue to sell Northern specialities - specifically mentioning bilberries. However, despite the fact that they are preseved in syrup bilberries only seem to appear on the supermarket shelves in the autumn. A Polish shop is still the best place to look for them as about 90% of the world supply comes from Poland I think.

    BTW. Watch out as they will stain everything if you are not careful. They are most definately worth it though.

  3. I think its time you stopped displaying all these delicious ice cream recipes. Its pitiful enough I am on an anti-inflammatory. I can only sniff the gin bottle......and now i have to look at your beautiful creations.....its just not on!

  4. I just saw this on F.G.-it looks delicious. I must admit thought that I've never had a bilberry. I trust that it's delicious fruitiness!
    p.s. I can't believe you like shiny things too (smile)...!

  5. Yum!
    I'm having a giveaway on my blog, participate here

  6. I've never had a bilberry anything.

    When I make my custard (I make 600ml batches), I boil 300ml of whole fat milk with a vanilla pod, and let it infuse for 15 minutes. I then mix 7 egg yolks with 150g of golden caster sugar, and add the milk (once strained). I dump in another 300ml of double cream and start heating. The secret to not curdling is a thermometer. Don't let the custard go above 84°C and you will be fine. As soon as it hits 84° I place the pan into a sink with some cold water in the bottom and stir with a beater for a few minutes. That stops a skin forming.

    The thermometer means you'll never waste another batch, and they cost a few quid at any kitchen or cookware store.

  7. Cheers IG, I have been considering investing in a thermometer for a while now (along with a few other misc odds and sods)so think its probably time to cough up and get one. Seriously you need to try bilberry something - anything, they are brilliant.

  8. Don't know where I've been but, I've never heard of bilberries. They look great though and your ice cream looks fantastically delicious! I'm new here and happy to find your blog! There's a lot of good info here!

  9. Hi Pam, it doesn't matter where you've been you're here now :) Its not suprising that you haven't heard of the bilberrry as it only grows in northern Europe - in the same sort of moorland that you find Grouse (which is why they also taste delicious because the bilberry is a big part of their diet). It is supposed to be related to the blueberry and huckleberry and I am sure you could substitute either of them or even blackberries for this recipe. If you ever come across a Polish deli you might find a jar of bilberries in syrup - I can't recommend them enough (well I probably could recommend them some more but then I'd want to be paid by the British Bilberry Council or whichever august body is responsible for their promotion).

  10. Yummy! I want a scoop of that delicious ice cream right now! I just found your blog and have signed up to follow it. Not only do you have great recipes on your blog, I am finding myself learning about new ingredients I haven't heard of before. Thanks for expanding my culinary knowledge!

  11. Hi Linda. Thanks for the positive feedback, I cannot stress enough how little I know about cooking or gardening but hope it is entertaining or at least moderately diverting. I am following your blog in the hope of reading more rattlesnake stories...

  12. this ice cream. Would be perfect for me today as the weather is quite warm. I have to learn to make ice cream using eggs. Thanks very much for sharing.


  13. I agree, a book about ice cream is better than socks.

    I'll follow you gladly :-)