The plants might seem small but they have a large underground root and runners system and so one plant can occupy a large area. Some runners are over 4 metres long and the roots run up to 2 metres into the ground. There are usually more male plants than female plants in any one area. The female plants can take several years to produce fruit (up to 7) and they do not produce fruit every season. Not every plant gets pollinated so it is common to see fruitless red flowers.
The cloudberry plant has small jagged leaves, mostly green with burgundy. The colour burgundy can be dots, a lining around the outer leaf or be the colour of a whole leaf. The leaf buds around the berry are burgundy and change to yellow-brown as the leaf opens up when the fruit ripens. The berry begins white and grows into bright red. The fruit ripens into orange but some berries can maintain a reddish tinge.
A growing berry:
Berries turning red:
Fully grown berries unripened:
A red cloudberry ripening to orange:
A cloudberry at the last ripening stage:
A ripe cloudberry:
Texture and Taste
The cloudberry holds its shape because of juice. Like a watermelon, when all the juice is expelled, only seeds and a small percentage of fiber (basically its thin skin) is left. They have many seeds and are similar to a raspberry in that respect, but larger in comparison to the size of the fruit. The seeds are noticeable when they go down your throat. The taste is usually described as a sweet-sour apple flavour. I think cloudberries taste similar to a dry riesling wine that is a little too warm.
The Value of Cloudberries
Cloudberries are THE Norwegian berry. They are highly prized because simply, they are hard to get. Cloudberries are not commercially grown and so hand picking in the mountains is the only way for even the shops to get their hands on them. It is not the best situation going into mosquito infested swamps doing back breaking work. Growing them yourself is almost imporssible. It takes about 7 years for a seed to grow to blossom and they will only do that in the perfect situation.
Mostly cloudberries are also highly prized as part of the Norwegian culture. Earning ‘highland gold’ for your hard work is a theme in Norway. Cloudberries are also part of Norwegian traditional cooking. Cloudberry bløtkaker, cloudberry cream/yoghurt and cloudberry sauce wouldn’t be the same without cloudberries.
Cloudberries are part of Sami culture. Traditionally they would keep their berries in reindeer milk as it is so full of fat that it can preserve the berries. (This is likely where Norwegians got their cloudberry cream from.) The value of cloudberries transcends to being a national treasure.
Cloudberry Picking – What You Need
You need to be in the Arctic. You need a good idea of where to find berries (your locals can help you there). You need a car to drive to the mountains, unless you are already close to a field. You need a good pair of walking legs to get you to the swamp. You need good water-proof boots. You need buckets for the berries. (It is best to have a smaller carry bucket that you frequently dump into a bigger bucket. There have been many hearts broken over a dropped bucket of berries.) If is also a good idea to have a bucket with a fixed handle. It is easier to carry and perfect for little hands. You need to be heavily clothed with a net hat to stop the mosquitoes. You need good stretch in your legs as you will be squatting for a very long time. You need a tent as cloudberry picking is addictive and you will lose track of time and want to sleep over to continue picking the next day.
The Law of Picking
There are three regional rules of picking cloudberries in Norway according to the Straffeloven (law) article 400. The general rule is that you can pick anywhere as long as it is not fenced in (which applies to all fruit). In Nordland and Troms you can not pick cloudberries if the ground owner expressively forbids it. In Finnmark anyone can pick cloudberries if they are eaten on site. If you want to take them home and you don’t live in Finnmark you need a permit from the sheriff. The reason why you have to ask permission from the law in Finnmark is because the land is privately owned by the State. In Southern Norway anyone can freely pick cloudberries in areas that are not fenced in. If you are found guilty of stealing berries you can be fined and put in jail for up to three months. These rules are more strict than other berries because cloudberries are such an important part of the Norwegian economy.
Cloudberry picking is governed by manners. People who live with cloudberries have a right to pick them. Poaching by visitors is not allowed. Locals are welcome to any public field, private fields need permission. Every year there is a healthy competition amongst locals to pick cloudberries. Locals have their favourite, secret fields, that they keep hidden for years and years. Only berries that are ripe are allowed to be picked. The rest should be left for those who come after you. You never gate-crash on a field that is in the process of being picked. It is good manners to walk to cloudberry fields. This makes sure to protect the area and creates ‘fairness’. (There have been times where we have walked an hour or two to a field only to be duped by a person on a quad-bike driving from field to field. This is greedy and very frowned upon. Beating one person to one field on foot is one thing, beating 20 people to 20 fields on the same night because you are illegally going off road with a four-wheeler, is another. The culprits are dealt with the only way Norwegians know how.) Some Norwegians go on camping trips and week-long hikes up in the mountains to get to the best cloudberry fields.
Cloudberries have to be picked by hand. They are too delicate to use a picking tool. Quite often the weight of the top cloudberries in the bucket is too heavy for the bottom cloudberries and squish them into juice. A cloudberry needs to be lightly gripped with three fingers at the base of the berry, leaves clear. With a gentle pull the berry should evenly break free of its stem. If half the berry is left on the plant it is because of one of two things – 1) you did not pull the berry straight off the stem but with a sloppy side motion, or 2) the berry is over ripe. It is best to put the berry straight into a container, gathering berries in your hand can create pressure and the bottom berries will start leaking juice. You can’t just throw berries into the bucket unless you want to make juice. They need to be gently placed to keep their cloud-shape.
Cloudberries should not be washed as they will disintegrate. Cloudberries are best used straight away but can be kept in the fridge for a few days. Norwegians often store thin blocks of cloudberries in the freezer for a later time.
Judging Ripness – by the berry
Picking a cloudberry at the right time is certainly an art form. Pick too early and you could have a crunchy, sour, berry. Picking too late could result in a ball of mush in your hand. Colour is the quick way of judging ripeness but it can be deceiving. A cloudberry is usually orange when ripe, can also have tinges of red and is fading in colour when it is over ripe. Sometimes only half the berry is ripe because the other half is away from the sun. Judging by the bud leaves isn’t a sure way either. Usually the bud leaves turn yellow-brown and fold back when a berry is ripe. However, sometimes the leaves stay on the berry and sometimes they fold back when the berry isn’t fully ripe. The best way to tell if a cloudberry is ripe is by the squeeze test. First pick a berry that you think might be ripe. With three fingers gently feel the firmness of the berry. If it is hard, firm, slightly firm or slightly half firm, the berry isn’t ready. The berry must be soft and slightly bouncy. If it is, you should pick the little ball of heaven.
Judging Ripeness – by the weather
There are lowland cloudberries, which are usually privately owned or little tuffs of stray bushes – natural accidents. And there are free mountain cloudberries. Many do not have a swampy mounatin at their door step to test squeeze to see if the cloudberries are ripe or not. The way most Norwegians judge from afar, if the cloudberries in the mountains are ripe, is by the weather. Cloudberries on the low lands usually ripen in mid-July, especially when the weather is warm and sunny. Up in the mountains, it takes longer for cloudberries to ripen as the climate is cooler. They usually ripen up to two or three weeks after the lowland berries. The slow ripen makes the berries taste sweeter than the lowlands. The berry size and flavour largely depends on the weather of the Spring and Summer. If the sun comes out early in the Spring and is bright and warm, the berries have a very good chance at being at their best for the season. If the days have been cloudy and mild, it is hard for the berries to get enough energy to successfully grow and ripen.
A field of cloudberries do not ripen all at the same time. The ones under a shade of trees, on the other side of a ridge or in a gully, will usually take longer to ripen. It is usual for a bucket of berries to ripen every day so pickers are lured into returning every day, or camping out. Norwegians have the art of berry picking down to a tee. Just by feeling the firmness of a berry and accounting for the weather – sunny/cloudy – Norwegians can tell when berries will be ripe. As Moose says: ‘another week’, ‘two days time’, ‘tomorrow if it is sunny’ and even ‘later this evening’. It is the Norwegian sixth sense.
But there is one sure fire way of knowing if the berries are ripe up in the mountains before a trip – the papers give a report from the people who live up in the mountains. They are the ones that will pre-squeeze your berries for you. So it is wise to check the reports in the papers from the middle of July so you don’t waste your time on a fruitless trip.
It is rare for a Norwegian to sell their stash of cloudberries. They usually go in the freezer for all the bløtkaker for the next year or are made into jam. Some companies hire commercial pickers to sell berries in the supermarkets. Sometimes there are locals at street stalls that sell a small batch. Immigrants have jumped on the band wagon selling cases of picked berries. This doesn’t seem to go down well though. The whole point of the value of the berry is the effort gone into picking them, caring for them during transit and making something out of them. Eating the fruits of your own labour is always sweeter than handing over money. It is understandable that Norwegians in the South may need to buy cloudberries, but the general opinion in the North is ‘why buy them when you can pick your own for free?’
As mentioned above, cloudberries are not farmed. They have been decades of unsuccessful attempts but the cloudberry needs a very distinct environment to thrive that cannot be recreated in a lab. No one really knows exactly why this is but the delicate balance of nature, swampy mountains with moose droppings and 20 feet of winter snow, is what makes the cloudberry happy. I’m sure the person who can figure out how to farm cloudberries will become a national hero.
There is one particular cloudberry swamp that is famous in Norway. In the county of Finnmark, near North Cape, a family owns an island that is considered one of the best cloudberry fields in Norway. As it is privately owned, pickers can pay by the bucket for berry picking (usually half of your berry-loot). The royal family has been known to go picking there from time to time.
Cloudberries on our Farm!
It just so happens that we are lucky enough to have our own cloudberry field on the farm. When Farfar first bought the farm it was a swamp on a hill. He drained it to create fields, chopped down trees to build fences and animals trampled through the swamp leaving their droppings. This created the perfect environment for cloudberries.
Our cloudberries usually ripen mid-July because they are ‘lowland’. We have about two weeks of picking and everyday we can fill a small bucket full. They aren’t usually as sweet as mountain cloudberries but they are plump, juicy and put big smiles on our faces.
Berry picking draws attention on the farm. The horses are always curious about our cloudberry-picking antics. Horses don’t really go for cloudberries – luckily. Their don’t particularly like the ground that they grown on – too unstable and squishy. But where the humans go, they want to go also. We don’t mind their company but horses are clumsy and step all over the berries. And picking with a horse nibbling on your pony-tail is a little distracting. We have to chase them away.
Berry picking is a great family activity. It is a berry hunt, a yummy snack time and a teaching opportunity all rolled into one. The kids learn how to be careful with something so delicate, stepping around, picking and handling. They learn about colours, plants and growing fruits. And after, they learn how the berries can be used – cakes, sauces etc. Berry picking is an all-round experience.
But sometimes we get a visit from the sheep. They are very tame now and don’t mind us at all. Moose told me that sheep don’t eat the berries (little did he know). I saw Josie, the ewe, sniff around a bush and then gobbled up a ripe, juicy, berry. I screamed in panic. The sheep had been roaming free in the back forest for a couple of days. It wasn’t going to take them long before realising that cloudberries are good eatin’.
Luckily they were more interested in getting a scratch and rub. I lured them away from the cloudberry field so Moose could set up an electric fence around it.
We love our sheep but we can’t have them eating our highland gold.
On a good season we can pick about 2 litres in 30 minutes. This will taper in and out as the season comes and goes.
Over the next few years we hope to develop the cloudberry field. We hope to showcase it to visitors on the farm. And maybe, just maybe, we will be the heros in cracking the farming secret. Wish us luck.