Whimberries: Shropshire's secret superfood
PUBLISHED: 16:44 19 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:57 16 July 2013
Shropshires secret super fruit
Tom Hunt of Ludlow Food Centre tells why he loves
Bilberry is a name used for several species of Vaccinium (genus) that bear fruit on low-growing shrubs. The species usually referred to as bilberry is Vaccinium myrtillus, also called the European blueberry. The bilberry has many other names, including blaeberry, whortleberry, whinberry (or winberry), whimberry, wimberry, myrtle blueberry, fraughan and black-hearts
The Shropshire whimberry is rising in popularity and is in season right now. Known as bilberries in the north, wortleberries in the south and blaeberries in Scotland, Shropshire whimberries are an amazing local asset. The whimberry is very similar to the American blueberry and has all the same super food credentials. However, unlike the blueberry, you will not find it in the supermarkets so every year people in Shropshire head for the hills in search of whimberries. Whimberry pickers are a secretive bunch and dont say too much about where the fruit can be found but it is widely acknowledged that Shropshire is a hot-spot.
The berries can be found all over the Shropshire Hills but specifically in the areas around the Stiperstones and Cluns Black Hill. The small, round, almost black fruit grows on heath or moorland and primarily in peat. Whimberries are not just a tasty fruit but are also an important part of our local environment and history.
It is believed by some enthusiasts that the whimberry dates back to when Britain was first colonised and that our ancestors discovered them when they hunted reindeer that grazed in the area.
The name whimberry is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word that translates as heather-berry, taken from the areas they are found in. The spelling often varies though in Shropshire it is spelt with an h and an m. Whimberries grow on a bush that is low to the ground so are difficult to see and pick from. Traditionally pickers would pick one berry at a time but some have developed combs that can be used to strip the bushes of their fruit without damaging the plant.
The whimberry was extremely popular at the turn of the 20th century because it was abundant and valuable for the process of dyeing cloth and wool. Train-loads of the fruit went from Shropshire to Lancashire to be used in the mills and it is believed that RAF uniforms get their unique colour from whimberries. During the late 19th and early 20th century it was common for children to skip school to pick whimberries which they would sell to higglers who traded them all over the country.
In the 21st century whimberries are making a comeback. They are loved by healthy eaters because of the high levels of anti-oxidants and by foodies who make whimberry pies and whimberry jam. Just 100g of whimberries is said to have the same level of anti-oxidants as five servings of other fruit or vegetables.High in vitamin C and a good source of fibre, whimberries have a compound which acts to protect the heart in the same way as cholesterol-lowering drugs. It is suggested they can help prevent cancer and heart disease. Whimberries also have the same anti-ageing credentials as blueberries and research in the US has shown that blueberries, the whimberrys American cousin, stimulate growth of brain cells and improve balance and co-ordination.
Environmentalists have recently shown their support for the whimberry because the plants help to prevent the erosion of peat bogs that soak up carbon dioxide. Whimberry bushes grow close to the ground and act as a natural covering that prevents subsidence. The plants are dense so also provide a habitat for wildlife. Peat bogs are fertile and common on British hillsides but only some have the precious Whimberry bushes. Scientists believe that peat bogs throughout the UK hold up 10 per cent of the nations carbon dioxide and that they need protecting to prevent the release of the greenhouse gas. The over-grazing of peat bogs in parts of the country such as Derbyshires Peak District has led to the peat releasing carbon dioxide in dangerous quantities. If Shropshire can increase the number of whimberry plants, and whimberry-lovers it will help prevent the problem occurring here.
So if you want to eat well, save the planet and support the local economy why not try a whimberry? They are on offer now at Ludlow Food Centre where you can also find a range of local, seasonal fruit such as gooseberries, black currants, red currants, raspberries, strawberries and cherries. If you are feeling adventurous you can always go hunting yourself and make your own jam or whimberry pie.
By Shirley Jones, Head Chef
Ludlow Food Centre
250g shortcrust pastry
125g caster sugar
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 large cooking apples
Sugar for sprinkling
4 tablespoons of double cream
1 Core the apples and bake in a medium oven until soft. Allow to cool and scrape out the apple pulp. Mix it with the whimberries and sugar
2 Roll out the pastry and line a pie plate or tart dish
Fill with fruit and sugar and cover with pastry. Do not seal
3 Brush the top with beaten egg white, sprinkle with sugar and bake in a hot oven until golden brown
4 Before serving, gently lift the lid and pour in the thick double cream
The Ludlow Food Centre is open seven days a week, 9am-5.30pm, has ample free parking and good disabled access.
Telephone 01584 856000or visit www.ludlowfoodcentre.co.uk