Foraging Fairytales: Bilberry Sunday

By Alicia Upton on 29/07/2021

What are your plans for this weekend? Well- drop them all. It’s time to fall in love. 

The Bilberry is known by many different names across Europe. In Ireland, the small blue-black berries are known as Rachóg, Whorts, Hurts or Heatherberries.

In the UK, Bilberries are a rarer foraging find- best picked on a day designed for being outside, when lingering on hillsides, heathlands and hedgerows is a pleasant affair. In Sweden however, you’ll be hard pressed to not find them- up to a fifth of Sweden's total land area is carpeted by Bilberry bushes. 

Unfortunately, I often find the ones in my local woodland provide food for small animals before ever reaching me. But if you’re lucky enough to find them, you’re truly in for a treat. The small, black-blue berries pack a punch- both filled with flavour and bursting with nutrition. They look and taste like blueberries, if a little sourer. 

When it comes to folklore, the little blue bilberry has a legacy of romance, with matchmaking abilities to rival those of cupid's arrow. A little later down the line- they became known as a ‘superfood’, for reasons other than you might initially imagine. 

Exotic birds have their mating dances, youngsters have tinder, but for young folk in Gaelic communities the best chance of finding love was Bilberry Sunday

Bilberry Sunday is the Sunday closest to the Gaelic Harvest Festival, Lughnasadh. On the Sunday closest to this festival (be it the first weekend of august or the last weekend of July), people across Gaelic communities would celebrate Bilberry Sunday. 

Families would send their young folk out to forage for bilberries. Rush baskets in hand, foragers would scour heathlands, hills and mountains to fill their baskets. 

Bilberries can be scarce at the best of times- even more so when your entire community is out trying to find some too. But berry scarcity isn’t the only thing that made bilberry collecting take quite so long. Bilberry Sunday wasn’t just about the berries- it was a time for the young people of the town to court. 

Bilberry Sunday: A festival of foraging and flirtation
Bilberry Sunday: A festival of foraging and flirtation

An afternoon of flirtation and foraging later, baskets were filled with a Bilberry bounty. Folk would turn and head homeward, with hair a little windswept and perhaps a little lovestruck. Their descent from the hedgerows and hillsides accompanied by a chorus of whispers- who had dared steal a kiss, speculation on the matches made and heartbreaks suffered. 

The day's celebrations were concluded with the Bilberry dance. Communities would gather and celebrate the harvest with food and dancing. Girls would present the boys of their choosing with a token of their affection- a freshly baked bilberry cake. Many Gaelic weddings were set this way. 

Could Bilberry jam give you superpowers?
Could Bilberry jam give you superpowers?

Fast forward a few millennia and the humble bilberry has found an unexpected, yet equally auspicious place in society. To those in the know it’s the ultimate superfood- WW2 pilots believed it would give them night vision. 

Pre-flight rituals often involved the unexpected- a hearty spoonful of bilberry jam. Without robust scientific evidence to back these claims up, the effectiveness of this midnight snack is under question. Perhaps, like carrots, it was hailed as the reason for pilots accuracy on night missions- a false claim spread to hide the development of aircraft radar from the opposition. 

Today, the bilberry is still known as a superfood, although the reasoning has changed somewhat. It’s high nutritional value and antioxidant content, paired with its fantastical flavour are the foundation for this accolade- we’ll leave its magical night vision properties up to the wonders of your imagination. 

When it comes to romance, food is still considered to be the way to a person's heart. Perhaps those feeling a little unlucky in love should head out and fill baskets- a bilberry cake could be the answer to all of your woes. 

Bilberry Cake
Bilberry Cakes- Aphrodisiac Extreme

Our top secret bilberry cake recipe is an aphrodisiac extreme. Unfortunately the powers that be have deemed the recipe too powerful to be shared quite yet. However, we’ll be publishing it this September in our latest Foraging Fairytales book: Hedgerow Festival. We can’t wait to share this newest instalment of magical folklore, foraging adventures and mouth-watering food with you all. Drop us a message to get on the waitlist for a copy! 

We’ll be teasing our newsletter readers with more exclusive content leading up to the Hedgerow Festival. Sign up to our mailing list to have these sneak peeks delivered straight to your inbox.

Article written by Alicia Upton

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