Cloudberries are shy little plants. They grow so low to the ground you might not even notice the juicy golden fruits balanced on delicate stalks half hidden in the spagnum moss when making your way, as I did, round the edge of a peat-stained lake rimmed with feathery silver birch just below the snowline of a Norwegian fjord. And even if you know what they are and where they grow, you’d have to be there in August when they’re ripe.
So valuable is the cloudberry crop of the Scandinavian uplands that laws are in place to protect it from unlicensed gatherers. Freedom of access is usual in northern lands where the population is sparse, and while lesser berries — blueberries, raspberries, rowanberries, lingonberries, cranberries, even the exquisite little Arctic bramble — are plentiful and free, cloudberry rights are bought and sold with the land.
The berry harvests of Scandinavia were — and remain — an important resource for self-sufficient farming communities, adding variety to the diet through the nine months of the year when the ground is frozen and nothing grows. Their value and variety was noted by Ethel B. Tweedie, intrepid lady traveler in the land of the midnight sun at the end of the 19th century. “Berries are quite a speciality,” she wrote in “Through Finland in Carts” (London, 1898). “They greet the traveller daily in soup — sweet soups being very general — or they are made into delicious syrups, or are served as compote with meat, or transformed into puddings.” She counted 10 varieties of berry fruits gathered by those on whose hospitality she depended. “Of all these,” she continues, “The most esteemed is the suomuurain or cloudberry: in appearance like a yellow raspberry, it grows in the extreme north in the morasses during August. It is a most delicious fruit with a pine tree flavour.”
The italics are hers, and she’s right.
Cloudberries at first glance on a fjord
I first encountered the cloudberry in its natural habitat (rather than as an unripe berry on the moors of northern Britain) when visiting friends, smallholders on a Norwegian fjord some 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle. Their land, as with all the farms on the steep slopes of the fjords, ran vertically from the high tops to the shore. Dairy farming and fishing provided a modest source of revenue in the old days, though the family met its needs from a single cow. The upper pastures above the snowline in winter provided summer grazing while the lower slopes were cropped for hay. Ownership of the shore included the rights for inshore fishing and to set traps for lobster and prawn. Potatoes were planted in a small patch of arable land alongside the sprawling wooden farmhouse and tall barns. But it was the uplands, the moorland just below the snowline, that provided the wild gatherings that made life in these frozen uplands pleasurable as well as possible.
On the day of my visit, my hostess left a hand-drawn map on the kitchen table so I could follow the path uphill behind the house and join the family at the setor, a log cabin where, in the old days, butter and cheese were made. Sure enough the whole family — two children, parents and a pair of older cousins — were spread out across the moorland, baskets in hand. “You bring us good fortune,” called my hostess, straightening to greet me. “The cloudberries are plentiful this year. You can help us pick.”
It was hot work in the sunshine, though the berries were indeed plentiful and our baskets quickly filled. Rubus chamaemorus is, as its botanical name suggests, a member of the rose family. The blossom is white, five-petaled and rose-like. The leaves, flat and palmate, grow in pairs, making them easily visible in grass or moss. When first formed, the state it rarely moves beyond elsewhere, the cloudberry looks like a hard orange ball streaked with scarlet where the sepals have parted to expose the flesh to the sun. It becomes paler as it ripens. When perfectly ripe, the little globules that make up each berry swell with juice and turn gold. At this point, the flavor is neither sharp nor overly sweet but honeyed and a little medicinal. The juices are thick and almost jellied, a texture which lingers in the mouth and stays in the memory long after the fragrance has faded.
This recipe skips the sugar
For supper that evening, we ate small brown trout fried with chanterelles in home-churned butter and little almond-shaped potatoes cooked with dill-flowerheads. To follow, there were little birch bowls filled with the beautiful golden cloudberries folded with soured cream — thick and a little acidic and perfect with the slippery juices.
“No sugar,” said my hostess firmly. “Or the flavor will be spoiled.”
Cloudberries, she continued, are not only super-rich in vitamin C but are provided by nature with a preservative to keep them from spoiling. “My mother-in-law kept them fresh right through the winter under spring water in a big china bowl in the stabur.” This, a wooden storehouse on stilts with a turf roof, was visible through the window at some distance from the house. “As a child I hated the cold and being sent out in the snow to fetch whatever my mother needed. Which is why all the farmhouses are centrally heated and we all need fridges and freezers and keep our stores in the cellar where it’s warmer. Which is why we all put sugar in our preserves — even the cloudberries, though my mother would never approve. But I always pop some in the freezer to eat with the Christmas ham or for special days with cookies and cream. The cloudberries remind us of summer: There are times when we need to remember the sun will return.”
Cloudberry jam and liqueur
Anyone who can’t make it to Scandinavia’s Arctic uplands in August this year — maybe next? — might like to know that Ikea, the Swedish furniture-maker, stocks a cloudberry jam that has the proper jellied texture and tastes as it should. And for those who enjoy a digestif, Finland’s official distiller, Lapponia, produces a cloudberry liqueur, very sweet, in which the pine-needle flavor is still discernible. While both are no more than an echo of the real thing, you’ll get the general idea. Once tasted, never forgotten.
Top photo: Cloudberries. Credit: iStockPhoto