A baby carriage at a blueberry farm is not that unusual. Then there was the baby carriage a couple brought to Picayune Blueberry Farm in Mississippi last year.
"On the carriage were four baby parrots," reported Jerry Kirby, who owns the farm with wife, Nikki. "Parrots. P-A-R-R-O-T-S. Beautiful birds. Turns out the people have a parrot rescue place here in Picayune. And they were well-behaved parrots. One of them would get down and they would say, 'Jump back up here,' and they would."
You never know what to expect when dealing with Mother Nature or the general public. You-pick blueberry businesses combine both. (Find a guide to Louisiana and Mississippi farms here.)
New Orleanians expect blueberries starting around Memorial Day. This is when berries typically ripen and you-pick farms open north of Lake Pontchartrain and in southwest Mississippi. The berries begin showing up in farmers markets across the greater New Orleans area. (See when other locally grown produce is in season here.)
Star Nursery in Belle Chasse defies the usual expectations. Because the farm is south of I-10 and grows an early blueberry variety, its season is almost over.
"We don't get the cold temperatures" other growers in the region have, Dawn Carmadelle said. Sometimes, Star Nursery starts picking as early as March, she said. Their season lasts four to six weeks. The farm usually is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so this weekend or May 24 may be its last for 2018, she said.
The fifth generation family farm may be familiar from big displays at local Whole Foods stores or from their citrus sold at the Crescent City and Gretna farmers markets. This year, for the second time, they made their 5,000 blueberry plants in 25-gallon pots available for public picking. After a military moms blog and Belle Chasse residents discovered the farm, first-time customers began visiting time after time, Carmadelle said.
"We've been picking blueberries the last seven or eight years," she said. "We started commercially, and decided last year to go to you-pick, and had a good response.
"As a family person, I've enjoyed watching people make family memories," Carmadelle said. "Sunday, I had a family come out for the second time, and this time they had four generations. Watching that was very rewarding."
Carmadelle, whose maiden name is Renatza, said her grandfather and his father grew row crops, including vegetables, up and down Plaquemines Parish. Now the business, which takes its name from the old Star Plantation on the same land, grows mainly citrus and Creole tomatoes, most of which are sold to independent garden centers throughout the mid-South.
"Blueberries are one of the ventures my daddy wanted to get in," said Carmadelle, who operates the farm with her parents.
Every you-pick farm is different. Star Nursery's giant pots of blueberries sit on a rock bed, so it's not muddy. Some farms offer picnic tables, animals to pet and feed, and other fruits, vegetables or house-made foods.
Jerry and Nikki Kirby's Picayune Blueberry Farm is now a certified Mississippi agritourism site. The 52-acre farm has 13 acres of blueberries, cattle and sheep as well as blackberries, which ripen the same time as blueberries. This is the third year for the you-pick business.
"We have an air-conditioned packing house here" where folks can cool down, Jerry Kirby said.
Pickers are given a bucket and a rope to tie it around the waist so they can pick with both hands, and they are shown the nuances of picking. Berries that are ripe can be picked by feel. Perfectly ripe ones will roll right off the bush into the bucket. And the farm has golf carts to deliver people to the plants and back.
"A lot of families come out and we love that," Kirby said. "We can take them across the street to show them the animals."
Bill Magee of Sunhillow Berry Farm, which has a Pearl River address and is in the tiny St. Tammany parish community of Talisheek, started his farm in 1992 with his father. They began with an acre of blueberries and now have 600 bushes.
"People love to be out in nature, back to the earth," Magee said. "It's something that's rapidly becoming a lost art. No, not an art, a privilege. They're harvesting fruit produced by the plant, sunshine, nutrients and rain. They come out to a very isolated, secluded area where it's just them and Mother Nature. People have a good time."
Bill and Karen Magee started raising chickens and will have fresh eggs for sale. Sunhillow Farm also raises deer, Magee said, and they are due to start fawning any time. Pickers can see the fawns.
Baby deer, baby parrots. You never know, when you're out in nature, what you will find.
Magee's kids used to pick berries for Ristorante del Porto in Covington. And even though he was raised on his mother's delectable huckleberry and blueberry cobblers, the recipe del Porto's pastry chef developed for Blueberry Crostada is his very favorite blueberry dish.
"It's to die for," Magee said. Fresh or frozen blueberries can be used, but be sure to thaw frozen ones first.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3-1/2 cups blueberries
2 tablespoons (or less) flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup caster sugar*
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold, unsalted butter, cubed
Pinch of salt
Zest of 1 lemon
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons cold water
White of 1 egg
1 tablespoon water or milk
Powdered sugar for dusting
Make filling: In a medium bowl, mix berries with flour and sugar.
Make pastry: Put flour, caster sugar, butter, salt and lemon zest in a food processor or electric mixture fitted with paddle attachment. Process or mix on low speed just until mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
Add yolk and cold water. Process or mix on low just until a dough forms. Gather dough together and form into a disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking tray with parchment. Remove dough from refrigerator and divide into 4 portions (or 6 to make individual tarts).
On a lightly floured surface, roll each portion of dough into a circle until it is about 1/4 inch thick. Place each round onto the prepared baking tray. In a cup or small bowl, use a fork to beat the egg white with water or milk to make egg wash.
Put 3 or 4 tablespoons blueberry filling in the center of each tart, leaving a 2-inch border around the edges. Roughly fold in the edges of the dough to overlap and cover only some of the blueberry filling. Brush with egg wash.
Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until pastry is golden. Cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.
*A substitute for caster sugar, widely used in professional baking, can be made by pulsing white sugar in a food processor or coffee grinder for 20 or 30 seconds.
This five-minute nondairy frozen treat can be made up to five days ahead. The recipe comes from Bon Appetit.
Banana and Blueberry "Ice Cream"
Makes 4 servings
4 firm, ripe bananas, cut into chunks, frozen overnight
1 cup blueberries
Pinch of kosher salt
Puree bananas, blueberries and salt in food processor, scraping down sides as needed, until smooth and creamy. Serve at once or cover and freeze. If frozen, let sit 10 minutes at room temperature before serving.
Picayune Blueberry Farm hands out a recipe flyer that includes this recipe from the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
Blue Angel Cake
Makes 8 servings
1 angel food cake
1/2 cup fruit jam or jelly, any flavor
1 tablespoon orange juice
2 cups blueberries
1-1/2 cups low-fat whipped topping or whipped cream
Optional garnish: Fresh berries, mint leaves
With a serrated knife, split cake horizontally into two layers. Put the bottom layer on a cake plate.
In a medium-size microwavable bowl, stir together jam or jelly and juice. Microwave on high until melted, about 45 seconds. Fold in blueberries.
Spread 1 cup whipped topping over bottom layer of cake. Spoon about 2/3 of the blueberry mixture over it. Cover with top cake layer. Spread with remaining cream, and spoon remaining blueberry mixture over the cream. Garnish with fresh berries and mint leaves, if desired.
For information about columnist Judy Walker's E-cookbook of favorite Louisiana recipes from her "In Judy's Kitchen" features and videos, send an email to her: JudyWalkerCooks@gmail.com.