Free Delicacies From the Forest
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FINLAND
IN THE Nordic countries of Europe, many families enjoy venturing into forests to pick wild berries. In Finland, for example, forest lovers are favored with the right of public access, which allows everyone to walk freely in nature—even when the land is privately owned—as long as they do not cause any damage or get too close to a home. The right of public access is not written in the law but is an old Scandinavian tradition. It permits one to pick wildflowers, mushrooms, and berries virtually everywhere they grow.
Finland is host to some 50 different species of forest berries, most of which are edible. The three most common are bilberries, cloudberries, and lingonberries.*—See the accompanying boxes.
Berries of various colors and flavors add variety to food and are very healthful. “Nordic berries that grow in the long daylight hours [of summer] are rich in color, aroma, minerals, and vitamins,” says the book Luonnonmarjaopas (A Guide to Wild Berries). In addition, the berries contain fiber, which can help to stabilize blood sugar levels and to lower cholesterol levels. Berries also contain flavonoids, phenolic compounds that are believed to promote good health.
Is picking berries in the woods worth the effort? “It really helps to save on expenses, as berries cost quite a bit in the store. And when you pick the berries yourself, you know that they are fresh,” says Jukka, an enthusiastic picker. His wife, Niina, points out a further advantage, “When we go berry picking, it gives us the opportunity to enjoy a nice family picnic in the woods.”
“But if you have children with you, it’s important that you keep close watch on them so that they don’t eat unfamiliar berries or wander away,” Niina adds. Caution is needed, as some berries are poisonous.
Like most Nordic people, Jukka and Niina especially enjoy the forest environment. “I love the forest,” says Niina. “It is a place of pleasant stillness and clean, fresh air. It refreshes my mind. Also, the children feel happy there.” Jukka and Niina have found that the quietness of the forest is a pleasant setting for meditation and family discussions.
Berries taste best and have the highest nutritional value when they are fresh and newly picked. But fresh berries do not stay fresh long. For berries to be enjoyed during the winter, they must be preserved. In times past, people used to store berries in the cellar, but now they are generally kept in the freezer. Many berries are turned into jams and juices.
“What a delight it is, during the coldest spell of winter, to take out those jars of preserved summer, bringing the past summer back, evoking a longing for the one to come,” aptly says a Swedish writer in the book Svenska Bärboken (The Swedish Berry Book). Berries are used in a variety of ways. At breakfast they go well with yogurt, granola, or porridge. Refreshing forest berries are used to make delicious desserts and pastries. And a puree or jelly made of berries is a colorful accompaniment to a variety of dishes.
Many people buy berries from the local store. But imagine yourself in the forest on a clear day, breathing fresh air and enjoying peace and serenity while looking for brightly colored, sweet berries. Not a bad way to acquire free delicacies for the table! It reminds us of the words of the psalmist: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions.”—Psalm 104:24.
In this article, we use the term “berry” as it is commonly understood, meaning any small, fleshy fruit. Botanically the term “berry” designates simple, fleshy fruits that usually have many seeds. According to that definition, bananas and tomatoes are berries.
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BILBERRY (Vaccinium myrtillus)
This popular sweet berry is also called whortleberry. Bilberries are often turned into sauce, pudding, jam, or juice. They are also used in various pastries, such as bilberry pie. Fresh bilberries are especially delicious with milk. But do not try to eat bilberry delicacies in secret, as the bilberry tends to dye one’s mouth and lips blue. It is also called the gossip berry.
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CLOUDBERRY (Rubus chamaemorus)
This berry thrives in remote places such as swamps. In Finland it is more common in the north. The cloudberry, brimming with vitamins A and C, is juicy and nutritious. It has between three and four times more vitamin C than an orange. Cloudberries are highly esteemed—sometimes called the gold of the swamps. These sweet berries add subtlety to various desserts, and they also yield a fine liqueur.
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LINGONBERRY (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
This berry, a close relative of the cranberry, is extremely popular in Finland and Sweden. Lingonberry puree or jelly makes a refreshing accompaniment on the dinner table. The bright-red berry is also used to make sauce, pudding, juice, and pastries. Lingonberries keep well, as they contain natural acids that act as preservatives. The high acidity gives the berry a tangy flavor, which may take a little getting used to.
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It’s Not All Fun!
Picking wild berries can be a pleasant and rewarding experience.* But it is not always free of difficulties. Pasi and Tuire are a married couple from Lapland who pick berries both for use at home and for sale. When picking berries, they are sometimes surrounded by swarms of pesky insects, such as mosquitoes and gadflies. “It is really annoying. They even get into your mouth and eyes,” shudders Tuire. Happily, though, you can protect yourself to some extent by wearing proper clothing and using insect repellents.
The trek into the wilderness can also prove difficult—especially when you are walking in a swampy area. What appears to be solid ground can turn out to be a mudhole. Also, according to Pasi and Tuire, the actual picking of berries can be quite laborious. Bending and crouching for many hours may take a toll on your back and legs.
Finding the berries is not always easy either. “It takes a lot of persistent searching to find a good spot,” says Pasi. “Many times the searching is more wearing on us than the actual picking,” adds Tuire. Cleaning the berries after they are picked also calls for extra work.
Because of such challenges, some are inclined to leave the berries for the furry inhabitants of the forest. Still, many enthusiastic berry pickers, like Pasi and Tuire, continue to make their yearly trek into the forests and swamps. To them the joys of picking wild berries far outweigh the sacrifices.
Not all berries are meant for human consumption. Some species are poisonous. Before picking wild berries, learn to identify the edible ones.