Kristina Burgess-Smith on foraging, forests and Sweden's secret superfood

February 06, 2019

Kristina Burgess-Smith on foraging, forests and Sweden's secret superfood

It’s no surprise that in our quest for beautiful, countryside-inspired gifts so many of them originate from Sweden. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know it’s impossible not to feel totally invigorated by the sparkling lakes, the luscious pine forests and free-spirited people.

Here local Swede, Kristina Burgess-Smith talks to us about one of Sweden’s best kept secrets, the lingon berry…

A few years ago, a friend of mine travelling up through Sweden to visit me in my summer cottage 150 miles north of Stockholm, remarked that 'there are an awful lot of trees in Sweden aren't there?' She's not wrong there! More than half the country is covered in a dense patchwork of elegant white-stemmed birches and tall, stately pines - an area the size of the United Kingdom.

 The forests, along with the 100,000 or so lakes are the life blood of Swedes, whose national and individual identity is synonymous with nature and freedom. Everyone has the right to wander freely in the forest, havens of tranquility for walkers, and if you're very lucky you may be privileged enough to catch a glimpse of one of the 300,000 majestic elk which make the forest their home. In winter the forests are transformed into a stunning snowy winter wonderland, but it is in late summer and early autumn they really come into their own and Swedes all over the country are out doing what Swedes love best - foraging.

 

 

 

The forest floor is transformed into a giant treasure trove, teeming (in good years!) with blueberries, edible mushrooms - and lingon. In English, 'lingonberry' is translated as 'whortleberry', a smaller relation of the cranberry. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of picking lingon with my Swedish mother and grandfather. I spent all my childhood summers in Sweden, living in my grandfather's house or the summer cottage he built in the forest on the edge of the same lake where I now have my own cottage. I remember the excitement when he took out the berry pickers - something so familiar to all Swedes, that they are sold in supermarkets and probably every Swede owns at least one. Nowadays the pickers are often made of plastic, but the ones I remember from my childhood were red metal.  They are really rectangular scoops, about 10ins long, with prongs at one end and a chamber at the other. Wellies on, bucket and picker in hand and you're off on a forest treasure hunt! I can only liken it to the feeling a dog seems to have when it hears 'walkies!' and watches you take the lead down.

Lingonberries grow everywhere in the forest, but they are happiest round tree stumps and when you hear the chain saws at work clearing a patch of forest for logs, you know that's where to head to find lingon. The plants grow very low to the ground and in fertile years the forest floor is a sea of millions of bright red berries which stand out in little clumps against their miniature, shiny green leaves. For me there has always been a fairytail-like beauty to seeing lingon nestled among the soft, white 'reindeer moss' as it's known, which also covers the forest floor. As a child it held a reverence for me and it still takes my breath away - the same feeling as looking at a beautiful sunset. I remember the thrill of helping my mother 'comb' the forest floor with the picker so that the berries were caught between the prongs. After each scoop we held our pickers aloft to let the berries fall into the chamber and then we kept combing until the chamber was full and it was time to tip them into our bucket. I can hear the satisfying plopping noise the first batches made as they hit the bottom of the bucket. Then we'd comb again and again until our bucket was full. That was a really proud moment and to add to the excitement it became a race with my grandfather and whichever aunts, uncles or cousins had come with us, each armed with their own picker and bucket, to see who could fill theirs first. I remember though that there was also a hint of disappointment and envy if mother and I finished first because I didn't want it to end and the others were still picking, so then I'd pad over, twigs crunching under my boots, to one of my relatives and help fill their buckets. It really was - and still is! -addictive. Unlike gathering blueberries, which you do in exactly the same way, there was never a danger of eating faster than you picked. Raw lingonberries in contrast to blueberries, are quite hard and tart, so picking was the name of the game. Because they're firm they're not squidgy so you don't get covered in juice, unlike blueberry picking where your hands turn purple-blue! But really the picking was only the start! Once home again, I'd get stuck into helping my mother turn the fresh berries into 'lingonsylt', the delicious jam which no Swedish home (or IKEA store) is ever without. First, I'd help sift the contents of our bucket to get rid of all the pine needles, leaves and other unwanted little bits of forest which always fall in, no matter how cleanly you think you've scooped. The berry sieve is a simple but ingenious device with gaps large enough so all the unwanted bits fall through, but small enough to capture the mature berries. I loved helping my mother to do this task (rensa in Swedish) and with all the detritus gone and just a bucket of pure berries left it was time to start making the jam! Well, almost time anyway. You couldn't start making jam before you'd experienced the wonderfully tactile sensation of running your fingers through the bucket and letting berries fall through your fingers.

I confess, I've never grown out of it! 

 

 

So now for the jam. 

The recipe is simple and delicious.

For every kilo of lingonberries, add 2dl of water and approximately 600g of sugar (you can add slightly more or less, depending on how sweet you want the jam).

Put it all into a large saucepan and let the mixture boil.

As a child I loved waiting for the moment the first bubble appeared and then more and more till it looked like a volcano erupting. Mother was always in charge here of course, lest I scalded myself, so I wasn't allowed to touch, only watch and wait.

Once the surface of the mixture has really bubbled up, turn the heat down and leave it simmer for about 20 minutes, giving it an occasional stir. Keep an eye it though because it has a tendency to boil over when you're not looking!

Let the mixture cool and thicken and then spoon it into kilner jars or similar. 

 

 

Lingonsylt is traditionally served in Sweden as an accompaniment to meatballs, 'gräddsås' (a creamy light brown sauce), boiled potatoes (never chips!) and frozen peas, but actually it goes with pretty much everything and in England homemade lingonsylt has always been a staple at our family Christmas Day table, taking the place of cranberry sauce as the traditional accompaniment to our festive turkey meal. 

 

 

You can buy lingon berries frozen from www.scandikitchen.co.uk. They will arrive defrosted if you opt for mail order, or Londoners can pick them up still frozen at the shop (61 Great Titchfield Street London W1W 7PP, Tel: 020 7998 3199). Ocado (www.ocado.com) also has a good range of Scandinavian food and drink – check out their range of ready made jams. IKEA also stock ready-made lingon jam in their market section.