Text: Emanda Percival
In East Iceland August and September is the season of wild berries. The three berries you’ll most commonly find are: the crowberry, small, blue-black and shiny. They grow on an evergreen ground cover with small thin leaves spiraling up a red-brown stalk. Most Icelanders under the age of 70 turn up their nose at crowberries as they do not have much taste, but the older generation know their worth and get their grandkids out harvesting bucket loads for winter jam. The other two types are both blábers. Although bláber gets directly translated as blue berry and royal blue berry, they are, in true horticultural terms, bilberry and bog bilberry.
Both low bushes – ankle to knee height - grow on the sunny side of hills (good drainage) near streams, the more sun the more berries. The bog bilberry tends to grow from a taller stalk with lighter green leaves than the standard bilberry whose leaves are rounder and tougher and turn a deep purple for autumn.
Every Icelandic person I’ve ever met calls bilberries blueberries, and as they taste delicious and grow wild, what harm does this semantic confusion cause.
Most conversations during early August include, at some point the phrases, “the season is going to be big,” and “they’ll be even better in three days/a week/two weeks.” What you will never hear is a discussion about where people are going to collect their berries. I have seen visitors to the country ask a local where they go to pick and watched the local’s face contort awkwardly as they avoid answering that question. Picking locations are a tight held secret. However, it is hard to hide in a country with so few trees and a determined person could discover these secret locations by spotting the cars parked on roadsides, and hiking around until they saw bottoms pointed to the sky as people, bent double, scoop their berry-combs through the ankle high branches gathering kilograms of fruit to be used in jams, cakes, smoke houses, or just eaten as is.
Happily, locals need not worry too much about the theft of their berry patches by visitors. I recently had a young student stay with me who announced she was going berry picking in the cow paddock adjacent to my house. When I pointed out there would be no berries there she smiled and nodded and I watched the disbelief of youth glaze over her eyes. She came back disappointed.
If you have the urge to hunt the wild berry, you can go basic like I do, using the traditional, slow technique of picking with your fingers. The advantage of this is you do no get a lot of leaves of twigs mixed with the berries; the disadvantage is you do not go home with enough berries to fill your freezer. If you want to embrace the true Icelandic countryside spirit of berry season and stock your freezer with enough to last the next lock-down, you will need two pieces of equipment: a berry comb; a scoop with a handle fronted by rake like metal prongs, designed to comb through the bláber branches scooping off the berries. The ones used in Iceland could be mistaken for medieval torture devices. The second tool you’ll need is a container. The preferred is an old ice-cream container (this seems to be the foraging container of choice globally).
The method is simple, bend at the waist, the forearm of the hand holding the ice-cream container resting on one thigh, just above the knee. Your free hand grasps the berry comb and ‘brushes’ the bilberry bushes. Empty the captured berries into the container. Practiced pickers can do this with minimal bending at the knees or straightening of the spine. Once picked the next task is to remove all the leaves and twigs that came along for the ride. The methods here are as varied as the places to pick them: spreading the berries out on a rack for the wind to blow the excess away, sifting them, or picking the leaves out by hand. The important thing to remember – I’ve been told by everyone - don’t wash your berries, wet berries rot faster.