Food Treasures: Cloudberries

My friend Ragnhild and I spent the month of August working on a strawberry farm just outside of Tromsø, Norway, 700 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. We would rise early, eat a hearty breakfast then spend six hours weeding, hoeing, planting and harvesting in the cold and wet, or, if we were lucky, in the beautiful, endless sunlight.  The afternoons were spent gazing out our farm’s picture window at the Arctic Sea, which lay about 40 meters away, or biking, hiking and exploring the peninsula and surrounding islands.  It was the perfect balance of work, rest and play, and, like the non-stop daylight, I did not want it to end.

One cloudy afternoon, Ragnhild and I were biking to Oldervik on the other side of the peninsula from the farm, grinding our way up the endless grade leading to the trailhead for the largest peak on the peninsula, when we spotted it: an electric orange dot hiding in the otherwise dull scrub of the moors. We stopped short, leaving our bikes by the side of the road, and disappeared into the birches, where other orange morsels glowed out of the underbrush in the flat light.

Cloudberries.

If you have never eaten a cloudberry, it is nearly impossible to imagine the taste of these alien-tinged jewels of the far north.  At once acrid and sweet, with a punchy metallic tang and fragrant pulp, their flavor alludes to a freshly-minted penny coated in agave nectar, citric acid and wild berry Kool-aid powder. You acquire a taste for them instantly or not at all.

A week earlier I tasted my first cloudberries—warmed in a bit of brandy with just a touch of sugar and vanilla ice cream on top.  I dreamed of my 5th grade trip to the US Mint that night, and woke up wondering where and when I could find more.

The secrets of the cloudberry are closely guarded in Norway. Unlike blueberries—the other wild berry prominent in the arctic—cloudberries grow a few at a time, in little clusters here and there, and are not gathered, but hunted. Turf wars arise over the best picking places, midnight raids occur, and everyone is constantly on the lookout for pops of orange along the roadside starting in August. Ragnhild’s grandmother used to pick the unripe ones (a punishable offense in Norway, apparently) and hide them in a pillowcase until they turned from bright red to a mellow orange.  How we happened upon unpicked turf was a miracle.

We started combing the moor for additional haul, the thrill of the hunt coursing through our veins. From 50 meters away, we must have looked a spectacle of George Romero proportions: two figures slowly shambling through a deserted arctic moor, specters in the gloomy half-light of the heavy fog, mumbling an incantation over and over again, go-sho, gooooo-shoooo  (Gå og se, Ragnhild’s father’s injunction and mantra for berry picking when she was little, simply means “walk and look,” but makes for mighty good zombie fodder nonetheless).

We didn’t even make it to Oldervik, but returned to the farm triumphant, a bagful of berries swinging from my handlebars.

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