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Blueberries - why so popular?

image captionDestined for muffins, fruit salads and snackpots

Sales of blueberries have overtaken those of raspberries. But why have British fruit lovers developed such a taste for these little juicy gems?

Small, sweet yet tart, firm to the bite. And hailed as a superfood.

The same could be said of many native berries, which are better suited to the UK's growing conditions and have a similar nutritional profile. Yet blackcurrants, gooseberries and blackberries struggle to find space on supermarket shelves, which are increasingly given over to blueberries.

Even raspberries, a longtime domestically-grown favourite, have been overtaken in popularity by blueberries. Sales of the US favourite are about 15,000 tonnes a year - up from 1,000 a decade ago, according to the trade body British Summer Fruits.

How did the UK find its thrill in a fruit which grows prolifically in North and South America but much less so within these shores?

Harry Hall, whose farm in Berkshire is the UK's largest blueberry grower, says it's partly down to commercial viability and clever marketing.

"The beauty of the blueberry is that you can put it on a ship and it can travel for 21 days, and spend another seven days getting to the customer," he told BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme. "You can't do that with raspberries and strawberries and blackberries.

"From a marketing point of view, it's a great product. It's very snackable, it tastes good, you can eat quite a lot of them."

Its long shelf-life - especially compared with traditional British berries - is appealing for retailers and shoppers as neither likes to be stuck with punnets of rotting soft fruit. And with labour in Chile and Argentina costing about one-tenth of that in the UK, prices can be kept competitive.

Then there is the happy marriage between blueberries and new favourites such as muffins, smoothies and stacked pancakes.

No wonder British growers are getting in on the act, despite the difficulties of growing an acid-loving plant in a nation with largely alkaline soil, and its susceptibility to pests. Two years ago, domestic production was 300 tonnes; today it's 1,500 tonnes.

The Royal Horticultural Society wants to fan interest in what are known in the trade as "minor berries" such as gooseberries and blackberries, because the British are losing the taste for them.

image captionHere's one reason...

Christopher Stocks, the author of Forgotten Fruits, is saddened at the new-found enthusiasm for blueberries.

"Some of our own native soft fruit are very fine in themselves, and just as healthy for you as blueberries. So this idea of them being a wonderfood is down to marketing rather than reality."

He is particularly disappointed that the gooseberry - a fruit grown here since at least 1275 - has fallen off a commercial cliff.

Many varieties still grown today came out of a "gooseberry renaissance" from 1750 to 1850, when Lancashire weavers used their leisure time to indulge in competitive gardening.

"They raised racing pigeons and they grew giant leeks and giant onions. And every year, people would compete to try and grow the largest gooseberry in Britain. There were hundreds of these competitions, and one or two are still going today."

The contests caught the imagination of Charles Darwin, who used stats from the winning specimens to help develop his theory of evolution.

So could other berries benefit from a spot of blueberry-style smart marketing?

No, says food writer Lucas Hollweg, who regards blueberries as an "easy listening fruit".

"It's difficult to reverse the tide. People have become used to the accessible, eat-straight-out-of-the-punnet fruits. People's taste buds have got used to that, and going back is quite hard."