‘The best blueberry’: how a tiny North American fruit took over Australia
Once a year in Brussels, the world’s best food and drink experts – Michelin-starred chefs and those who cook for presidents and royal families – sit alone at small, separate tables in complete silence at a judging session convened by the International Taste Institute. Wearing chef whites, these gastronomic gurus ponder the entity before them. The food can be viewed only in natural light on standard white chinaware. Judges don’t know who produced each entry, and gut instinct is not allowed – they must rigorously apply the International Hedonic Sensory Analysis criteria: first impression, vision, olfaction, taste and texture.
In May, a blueberry variety bred in Australia was awarded an overall score of 91.8% and bestowed with a three-star Superior Taste Award – a class reserved only for the most exceptional competitors. The cultivar, known as Eureka, was produced by Ridley Bell of Mountain Blue Orchards near Lismore in northern New South Wales. Bell is known as the grandfather of Australia’s blueberry industry and has bred the fruit for 47 years. He first saw the Eureka in 2008. Upon seeing (and tasting) the giant orbs dangling from a test bush on his farm, Bell ran to his wife saying, “look at this amazing plant”. She said “Eureka! You’ve found it!” And so the fruit was named.
The Eureka is no ordinary blueberry. It is large – often the width of a dollar coin. It has its own Facebook page. It is dark blue, firm with a crisp-juicy bite.
Eureka’s recognition as among the world’s most sumptuous foods is but one high point on the blueberry’s spectacular journey – from a shrub growing wild on North American hillsides to darling of the contemporary fruit world.
Today blueberries are grown across the globe. In Australia, blueberry production tripled in the five years to 2021, and the fruit is grown almost year-round – a perpetual river of fructose and antioxidants shipped across the country to be eaten raw by the handful, pulverised into smoothies or sprinkled on the açaí bowls of Instagram influencers.
Like the old proverb goes, however, “A tree is known by its fruit, a man by his deeds.” Blueberries appear as the perfect marriage of plant science and commerce – convenient, sweet, healthy and deeply beguiling. But the blueberry story goes deeper than its ink-dark skin.
Andrew Bell strides along a wet gravel path then pushes open the door of an industrial-sized shed. “This is where we grow the baby ones,” he says as we step inside. In neat rows of trays sit thousands of tiny blueberry plants about as tall as a thumb. Fans churn overhead. Nothing casts a shadow in here. Diffused sunlight spills through the translucent arched roof above, casting the infants in a dreamy ivory glow.
We’re at Mountain Blue’s nursery near Lismore. Andrew Bell is the affable, soft-spoken managing director; Ridley’s son. This year the company will propagate about 600,000 blueberry plants to be sent to growers or raised at Mountain Blue’s own farms.
Earlier, Bell junior explained how pollen from one parent plant is deposited, by hand, into the flower of another. Fruit grows from the fertilised flower, “then the seeds that come out of it get planted,” says Bell. Those children grow up, and the lucky few deemed worthy of commercialising are replicated by taking softwood cuttings. The sproutlings we’re looking at now are the elite clones.
Ridley Bell, 72, is a heavyset man with a bad knee and the gift of the gab. He started breeding and growing blueberries in the 1970s while working for the then Victorian Department of Agriculture. In 1976 he took an early blueberry batch to Melbourne’s Footscray markets – at the time a place of far more proletariat produce – to test the appetite of wholesalers. “I was walking around with these heavy trays and asking, ‘Do you know what these are?’ and no one knew,” he says. “The public awareness was zero in those early days.” Nonetheless, in 1981 Bell moved to northern NSW to start a blueberry farm.
Over the next couple of decades he and a few other growers chipped away at raising the profile of the little-known berries. They were helped in the late 1990s when scientists discovered blueberries contain more antioxidants than almost any other fruit. Demand soared. Suddenly, the humble blueberry was a superfood: a little blue pill that would smooth wrinkles and cure all manner of ills.
Over Zoom, Bell senior tells me what makes the ideal blueberry: good size, a deep blue skin covered by a waxy bloom, pleasing aroma, the right mix of sweetness and tang and, importantly, crunch. “Crunch is front and centre of the whole eating experience,” he says. “When you bite down it should pop – and you go, ‘Wow, that’s good.’” Blueberries are also bred for the traits growers and retailers need, such as pest resistance and shelf life.
Measuring a blueberry’s crunch is an exact science. Bell senior and his team use a Durofel meter, a revolving plate holding fifty blueberries. As the plate turns, a shaft presses into each berry and records the pressure it can withstand. Other breeders test crunch by puncturing the fruit, a metric known as “bursting energy”. The International Taste Institute’s jurors examined the Eureka’s texture, of which crunchiness is part, and awarded it 96%.
Each year, Mountain Blue makes about 120 crosses resulting in 10,000-plus hybrid plants. From those, perhaps one new variety each year will end up grown commercially. “It’s very long odds,” Bell senior says. Testing and assessing the hybrids is a long, finicky process. From cross to commercialisation can take up to 15 years, but Mountain Blue has got it down to about six.
The company guards its genetics and breeding methods closely. Still, Bell senior says, “people do naughty things”. In one case, a grower near Grafton in NSW acquired 15,000 bootlegged versions of Mountain Blue’s Ridley 1111 variety and propagated them. After a protracted legal battle the federal court ordered him to pay $290,000 in damages.
Bell senior is philosophical about those who try to rip off his life’s work. “Our breeding program is geared towards constant improvement,” he says. “I’m going to concentrate on what we’re doing and just get better and better.”
The first account of Native Americans using blueberries was recorded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1615. After founding Quebec he canoed up Canada’s Ottawa River to map the Great Lakes. There he found a gathering of Algonquin women spreading blueberries to dry in the sun.
Native Americans preserved blueberries for winter when food was scarce. They steeped, dried, crushed and boiled the plant parts for medicine – treating babies for colic, relieving coughs and purifying the blood. According to folklore, blueberries were sent by the Great Spirit to ensure First Nations people survived famine. The perfect five-pointed star at the top of each berry – the scar left when the stem detaches – proved its heavenly origin.
Blueberries are now grown in every Australian state. Production spans all seasons, from the sunny winters of far north Queensland to the cool summers of north-west Tasmania. It’s a strategy geared towards producing a steady year-round supply: news sure to please the blueberry diehards paying $10.99 a punnet in the off-season.
And as a growing global middle class develops a taste for blueberries, Australian growers are keen to satisfy it. Mountain Blue has farms in central India; Costa has farms in China and Morocco and is eyeing India, Namibia, Laos and New Zealand. All this, and Australia is still just a minnow in the global blueberry trade. Global production more than doubled between 2010 and 2019 to almost 1m tonnes, and blueberries are now produced on every continent except Antarctica.
Humans have disseminated blueberries around the world with extraordinary gusto. But who’s really in charge – us or the fruit? Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire that just as plants manipulate the bee into lugging its pollen from flower to flower, they also appeal to human yearnings so we too spread their genes en masse. Fruiting plants, Pollan says, exploit “the mammalian sweet tooth”: in exchange for their dewy, nectareous flesh, we plant their seeds across the globe. Blueberries, by that thinking, have lured us to ensure their own survival.
Ridley Bell’s Eureka creation may well have been feted by the world’s best chefs, but it has already been superseded by its own offspring. Eureka Gold, according to Bell, is his greatest breeding achievement yet. The relatively new variety produces consistently firm, jumbo fruit and a strong bloom. Eating-wise, Bell says, “it’s just a wonderful experience. Growers have already come back and said, ‘Wow. That is the best blueberry.’”