Blaeberries - summer's seasonal foraging treat.
Updated: Aug 26
By Sharon Wilson
She bent over and plucked a berry, popped it in her mouth and said:
"Delicious! Try them."
We were on a small hill overlooking Haugersand on the west coast of Norway. Irena our guide was dressed in the traditional Norwegian Bonad. A blousy white shirt and embroidered pinafore-come-dress over the top. The berries were blaeberries indigenous to Norway. They look like a cross between a blueberry and blackcurrant and are in between both in size. I tasted one and experienced a burst of flavour. Even better than the Scandinavian golden cloudberries, I was enchanted and hooked.
I hadn't heard of them before despite living in Scotland for decades. I am a hillwalker too so must have tramped over numerous bushes in my time. The teeny berries grow on heather and gorse covered landscapes and in forests. They are also known as bilberries and whortleberries, in America huckleberries are similar and in Ireland they are called fraughans. They are ready to harvest in July and August with the last Sunday on July being known as Fraughan Day in Ireland.
Sure enough, when I returned from my visit to Norway, I began spotting the berries everywhere and picking and cooking them. It doesn't make sense to buy imported blueberries at the supermarket when I can forage for better on my doorstep. They are bursting with Vitamin C and traditionally were thought to improve eyesight.
They are fiddly little things though, and many a hot afternoon on a hillside yielded a mere small tub. I stuck at this for a few years until I discovered the blaeberry comb; a tool commonly used in Scandinavian countries. It rakes the bush, and the berries fall into a small bucket attached. I bagged one in a second-hand shop in Norway for a few kroner. They are often known by the French word 'peigne' and are available on the Ray Mears website. It is still back-breaking work though so be sure to take provisions and a helper if possible.
You can preserve the berries by freezing and jam-making. Even when using a comb you will still have loads of bits of twig and leaves. I used to spend hours picking out the debris but then my Norwegian friend told me you don't have to be so meticulous. They liquefy pretty quickly, and you need to use pectin like lemon juice and/or apple to thicken the jam.
Mix one pound of fruit with the same of sugar and pectin and cook on the stove.
Boil for 15 minutes
I then add some whole fruits
Spoon a little onto a cold (put in fridge) saucer and if it wrinkles on the surface it is done.
Pour into sterilised jars.
If it doesn't thicken enough, you have compote which is delicious on yoghurt and porridge. If you are making a pie, I would use a bit of cornflour. Be careful, not too much as it will be gloopy and spoil the flavour. Note there is also a lot of cleaning up as the little devils are even worse than beetroot for staining. Gloves can be useful throughout every stage from picking to pouring into jars.
As you can see, even when knowing the tricks of the trade, foraging and cooking blaeberries is labour intensive. The reward, however, is juicy fruity treats to enjoy at once and throughout the year.