FAIRBANKS - Rapture for Helenmarie Matesi is a sunny day in a thick blueberry patch, picking the juicy, vitamin-rich fruits for the long winter ahead.
"I have always been nuts about berries," says Matesi, who is known as "the Berry Lady" at the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, where she works in the food and nutrition education program. "I'm a forager, a natural forager."
Part of Matesi's job is to pick Alaska berries for demonstrations and classes whenever groups or clubs request them.
"It's really cool being a berry lady. People call and tell me where the berries are," said Matesi, who has reliable berry patch haunts of her own.
This time of year, Jeff Wool, owner of Hot Licks Homemade Ice Cream, also is on the lookout for blueberries. In fact Wool is sending out an SOS to the blueberry-picking public for help in accumulating 1,500 pounds of the blue-orbed fruit to satisfy Fairbanksans year-round craving for Hot Lick's blueberry ice cream.
"In the past two years I've run out of berries," Wool said. "I've had to deprive myself at the shop because I have to sell it (blueberry ice cream) wholesale. It's probably the most favorite ice cream of all, up there next to vanilla."
The past two seasons' blueberries haven't been as abundant around Fairbanks as they usually are, and Wool said that he has had to import blueberries from up north.
"Sometimes I'll make phone calls to the villages of Ambler and Kobuk and they will recruit pickers and send the berries in," Wool said.
Wool pays $4 a pound for blueberries and estimates a gallon bucketful weighs about 6 pounds.
Matesi has some other good reasons to pick blueberries besides cold, hard cash.
"They're high in fiber and very, very high in antioxidants (vitamins C and A)," she said. "I eat a berry shake almost every day since reading about the scientific research."
Matesi said a Tufts University professor has found that the dark color of blueberries protects them from the sun rays and when they are eaten, they do basically the same thing for the consumer.
"It's kind of like eating sun protection," she said.
Whether picking blueberries to sell or for home consumption, Matesi has some tips for a successful blueberry outing. Pack a separate cooler for the berries, use shallow picking containers with lids, and don't forget the bug dope. If you use big buckets, Matesi said, the berries on the bottom will be crushed.
"Berries like the sun so look for patches on domes and the open tundra," recommends Matesi.
Matesi advises cleaning the berries as quickly as possible after pickers return home. "Cover a board with a towel and roll the berries down it," Matesi said. The towel will collect the twigs and stems.
Blueberries that aren't in prime condition can be frozen for making jams, jellies, syrups and sauces. Matesi sets aside nice big berries and freezes them separately on cookie sheets, then bags them and puts them in the freezer for later use in muffins or special desserts.
If the jelly or jam isn't up to par it can be used in another, equally delicious way. The Cooperative Extension Service even has directions for what to do with failed jams and jellies.
Gloria Blackburn picks berries for commercial use just because she loves being outside.
"I just love nature. I just love the woods. I just feel more at peace with myself out there," she said. Any money earned, Blackburn said, pays for the gasoline used to roam the countryside.
Local blueberry picking has been so poor the past few years, Blackburn has been traveling to Denali Park to pick. And she'll probably head south again this season.
"Where I usually pick here, there are a lot of blueberry plants but not many blueberries on them," she said.
For more information about blueberries and publications available on Alaska wild berries, visit www.uaf.edu/coop-ext or call Matesi at the ACES Food Safety and Preservation Hotline at 474-2430.
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