Monday, October 5, 2015

MaryAnn Nøbben: Cloudberries — A Close-Kept Secret

Backyard foragers cross a line in the name of Norway’s prized fruit.

The lone cloudberry. Photo by MaryAnn Nøbben
Do you know what cloudberries are?  I’d never heard of them before I moved to Norway in 1994 to marry one of Garrison Keillor’s famous “Norwegian bachelor farmers.”  No, not even while listening to tales of the little fictional town of Lake Woebegone with its many residents of Norwegian descent had I ever heard mention of this treasured fruit.    

In Norway, cloudberries (multer in Norwegian) do get talked about, though discussion is almost exclusively about the delicious end products derived from the fruit. Cloudberries have a fairly large seed — rather like raspberries, but bigger — and a unique flavor, unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Traditionally they are picked, frozen, and saved for a special dish or two at Christmas.

The source and location of the berry bogs is, however, a very well-kept and highly-protected secret! You see, cloudberries don’t grow just anywhere. They’re found only at high altitudes, in boggy conditions with insulating snows that protect and nourish them through the winter. Furthering their treasured status is the fact that each plant has only one flower, producing a single berry on a single stem. And though there may be plenty of plants, there are not always plenty of berries. Near wars break out over pillaging of berries from bogs, and I think maybe some Norwegians have emigrated just to escape revenge for such thievery! (Well, maybe not, but who knows? We’re talking serious stuff here!)
Cloudberry flower. Photo by MaryAnn Nøbben
Before I moved to Norway, my now-husband Nils had been alone on his farm for 8 years, tending to cows and goats. His farm work did not leave a lot of time for other activities, but he did make time to get down to the cloudberry bog that sits on his fenced-in property. Unfortunately, he often found, to his dismay, that his secret place wasn’t so secret.

Cloudberries are one of the few berries that can be picked while still unripe, and they will ripen to full flavor within a day or two. This allowed a local thief to greedily pick the bog clean, leaving not a single berry for Nils. The berry bandit’s identity was no secret — he was a man married to a local girl, who now lived down in Oslo but returned to his cabin sporadically on weekends. He was even brazen enough to leave his bike in plain view while he picked! To add insult to injury, Nils was forced to listen to a neighbor (a relative of the man’s wife) wax eloquent about the delicious cloudberry jam this couple gave to her each Christmas. Norwegians aren’t good at confrontation, so Nils never said a word.
Photo by MaryAnn Nøbben
Then, Nils married me — a young, healthy, and not-all-that-shy American. In that first year, I was mostly occupied with trying to learn the Norwegian language and getting used to being a farm wife. However, I did find time to check on the bog, to see how the berries were ripening and to make my presence known. The bike thief didn’t appear that year, but soon enough after my arrival, I went down to find him with his hands full of buckets full of berries!

By then, my Norwegian was coming along nicely and, though I hadn’t yet gotten to the chapter on swear words or expressing anger, I knew enough to understand as the thief explained cheekily that there were a few, but not many berries to be had — a statement refuted by the number of full buckets he had. Well, I may not have had the language to express myself, but I had been a kindergarten teacher for many years and there are certain things that can be communicated without words. Any kindergarten child — and berry-stealing neighbor — knows what “the look” means when they have been caught doing something naughty and I gave him “the look” in spades! He blushed nicely as he began to back up, feigning nonchalance by whistling under his breath as he made his way to the water’s edge where his wife was waiting at the oars of their getaway boat.

Needless to say, we didn’t have any berries for the delicious cloudberry cream at Christmas that year, but I can tell you it was the last Christmas that our neighbor enjoyed the jam she’d come to expect! Since then, I’ve gotten pretty good at making cloudberry jam myself, and I’ve discovered a favorite way to enjoy cloudberries: cloudberry liqueur, a treat I love to take home to the States, where they may not know what a cloudberry is, but they know what tastes good.

Photo by MaryAnn Nøbben
MaryAnn Nøbben lives in Norway with her husband Nils, where she grows gardens that are regularly featured in Storey’s Bloom Day posts. She is the sister of Storey’s Production Director, Caroline Burch.

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