26 September 2012

The Loftiest Berry

"We're cooking cloudberry jam today!" the woman behind the counter at Syltkrukan, ("Jam Pot,") announced.  We'd just been served our light lunch and coffee, a slice of rye bread each - mine topped with hard boiled egg and herring, Merlin's with liver pate and pickles. A man had just come out to fetch more empty containers to bring into the back room, of which we could make out the gleam of steel machinery and busy people.   She could tell we were curious.  Before we could take another bite, we were whisked back into the work room to behold the spinning of gold.   Cloudberry jam is a delicacy in Sweden and we've been looking out for it since arriving. Stumbling upon the jam family business was a little like finding a cloudberry, I'd imagine. We were muddy-booted and off the beaten track, it was tucked away in the Uppland forest.  It was magical.
A heavy box that said "FRAGILE" once arrived at the doorstep of our New York apartment. Inside, were a half a dozen jars of jam all the way from Sweden.  Merlin had taken a trip to the country recently and fell in love with the never-before-tasted cloudberry and lingonberry preserves.  The delivery, which he'd ordered, had three of each.  Most of the precious cargo was repackaged and sent off to family for Valentine's Day, but one jar of cloudberry was tucked away in our cupboard.  Merlin knew that once it was opened, it would vanish (and that each jar had cost nearly $20).   Swedes take cloudberries just as seriously, as was affirmed by our visit to Jam Pot.
"We call it Norrland's Gold," Per Wetterholm told us in the jam making room at Syltkruken.  An average of 50,000 tons of wild berries grow in Sweden's forests every year and about 96 - 98% of them go unpicked.  But not cloudberries.   If they are there for the picking, they are found for the jamming.   Hjortron, as they are called in Swedish, are rare for a number of reasons.   They are difficult for even the most skilled forager - of which there are many in Sweden - to find.  Tucked into swamps, marshes and bogs amongst fern plants, they have only one berry per stalk if that many.  It can take up to seven years for a fruit to be produced.  Some years, there are no cloudberries at all.  Cultivation would make matters a lot easier, but even a group of Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish scientists whose job it is to figure some sort of commercial production out have pretty much written cloudberries off as un-farmable on any large scale.
The berries - which look like pale yellow raspberries - are found, picked and then flash frozen before being sold and made into jam.  They are considered too tart to eat raw.   Per told us that in Sweden, almost 99% of cloudberries picked are made into jam and that jam is almost always eaten warm over ice cream, waffles or pancakes. There is tradition and reverence in the consumption of hjortronsylt.  And the making of it.  They say that the higher the fruit content the better the cloudberry jam. Syltkruken's was delicious, with 60% (that fancy imported stuff we got years ago only had 45%). What does it taste like?   I'd say tart, but bright.  It reminded me of fresh apricot, Merlin of honey, someone else of sour apple.  Maybe there are as many impressions of cloudberries as there are of clouds.

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