Lingonberries are one of the most Nordic of all our berries. And according to a study these small, red berries may have superpowers.
I grew up with mountains and mountains of lingonberries. You see, my mother adored them and always spent the whole of September foraging in the nearby forests. She made fresh lingonberry jam, just stirring the berries with heaps of sugar, and froze them. We would eat lingonberries smeared on bread or as a condiment with reindeer or meatballs and gravy, the most typical of all Norwegian dishes. Yes, it is Sweden’s national dish, but is also a beloved dish in Norway and Denmark. And maybe we would even whip them with egg whites until a pink and fluffy mess called trollkrem, Cream of Trolls.
Although loved and common in Norway, lingonberries have never been praised the way blueberries/bilberries or blackcurrants have. It may be because of their bitter taste. But a recent study may change the way we look at lingonberries, making them something more than a condiment for dinner.
In 2014 researchers at Lunds University in Sweden made a surprising discovery. Their aim was to test how different types of berries would impact obesity and other afflictions related to type 2-diabetes. Mice were divided into three groups with different diets: low-fat diet, high fat-diet and high-fat diet supplemented with berries. After 3 months on the diets the result came out clear as a drop of mountain dew: The mice receiving the high-fat diet with berries were more healthy in terms of insulin levels, weight etc. than the group on the low-fat diet. Lingonberries caused the greatest effect, and bilberries and blackcurrants to a lesser but still significant degree. What was also surprising was the detrimental effect of acai berries – they worsened the effect of a fatty diet.
Lingonberries have not been the subject of much research, probably because they are little known outside Scandinavia. In North-America they are simply called mountain cranberries, which is indeed a telling name since they taste similar to cranberries. In an article in the newspaper Telegraph the journalist recounts how her father-in-law foraged lingonberries in the Yorkshire:
”We didn’t know what to do with the lingonberries, which looked like red versions of the bilberries, but with his commendable distain for waste and (less admirable) disregard for any poisonous potential, my father-in-law popped them in a pie with the bilberries. Very good they were too, and we were all still alive for breakfast the next morning.”
The lingonberry police
Foraging came to a peak during World War 2 in Norway when we were occupied by the Germans and rationing took its toll. All green patches in the cities, even the Vigeland Park in Oslo, were turned into farmland and Norwegians ventured into the woods to pick nature’s abundance. From Oslo ”berry trains” brought city folks to the woods, but the foraging was strongly controlled. Inspectors nicknamed ”The lingonberry police” were to see that people did not pick berries until it was due, and unlawful foraging lead to confiscation and a fine.
Lingonberries are the last berries to ripen in autumn. While cloudberries and blueberries/bilberries ripen in July–August, lingonberries do not blush until August–September. Where I come from in the North, they are not ripe until September. But then finally the Month of Berries is there. The time when my mother, though her legs are not what they used to be, ventures out among the heather to pick her red gems. Bitter berries sweetened by sugar, and stored along with success tart in the freezer. All the good things reminiscent of childhood.
Lingonberries are best eaten naturel, and the good thing is that frozen berries maintain their nutrients. They are perfect in lingonberry jam or in a smoothie. Here I make my mother’s jam but halve the amount of sugar, because sometimes you have to make your own path.
1 kilo lingonberry
250 g sugar
Place the berries and sugar in a kitchen machine. Use the flex edge beater and beat for 10 minutes until thick and creamy like an unfrozen sorbet. Keep in the freezer.
More lingonberry and Nordic dishes?
Smoothie with lingonberry
Wild autumn stew with chanterelles and lingonberries
Norwegian success tart (almond meringue with butter-custard)