Until a couple of weeks ago, there was just one place I’d ever encountered a lingonberry – at Ikea. Sweden’s most famous berry is sold at Sweden’s most famous store in jars of jam or at the cafe with plates of Swedish meatballs in cream sauce.

But late last month when I was strolling the Portland Farmers’ Market trolling for wild blueberries, I encountered a few half pints of the small, garnet berries on the table of Lamb Cove Farm next to its more usual supply of wild blueberries.

I stared. I gasped. Fresh lingonberries! I snapped up a half pint, despite the $4.50 price tag. Short of a trip to Sweden, when was I ever going to see fresh lingonberries again?

The following week I cleaned out Lamb Cove farmer Ellen Johnson of her two remaining half pints, and I cursed myself for arriving too late in the day to buy all seven half pints she’d brought to market. (After reading this article, you may curse yourself, too. Johnson said she probably will not return to the Portland market this season, which is a very long drive from her farm in Robbinston.)

Lingonberries

Lingonberries

Back in the office, I phoned a few Maine chefs who – even more than every other chef in the state these days – are celebrated for serving local foods, also Andrew Volk, owner of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, where the menu is Scandinavian. Have you ever seen Maine lingonberries? I asked. Have you ever cooked with them?

“Fresh I’ve never seen,” Volk replied, adding that he occasionally buys canned lingonberries from a specialty Boston purveyor. “Now that I know someone is growing them, I’m going to go find them. You didn’t happen to catch her name, did you?”

I got some variation of that answer – Cool! Wow! How can I get my hands on them? – from every chef I talked with. (And I admit I felt a small thrill for having scored a product before the pros did.)

Truth be told, Johnson, who farms wild blueberries on five organic acres Down East, is growing the berries by accident. They grow wild very low to the ground under her blueberries, she said. The lingonberries resemble tiny cranberries, a close relative, and are in fact sometimes called upland or mountain cranberries.

They’re a little difficult to see, she said, and even more difficult to harvest. She uses a borrowed cranberry rake to do so, and this year, she expects to get about 20 quarts (compared to a blueberry crop in a good year of 150 quarts).

In past years, Johnson has canned and sold what she calls Superberries Jam, using several berries that grow on her land, mostly volunteers – blueberries, huckleberries, aronia and lingonberries. Superberries, she says, because they are high in antioxidants. This is the first year, though, that she tested the market for fresh lingonberries.

Make a jam with your lingonberries, suggests Andrew Volk, owner of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, where the menu is Scandinavian.

Jam with lingonberries Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

She hastens to tell me she is not an expert. She’d heard of lingonberries, and she thought perhaps that’s what was growing in her field. A Swedish friend who lives in the States visited and confirmed it.

“I thought that people might want them. I don’t know. I know you can make jelly and jam out of them, and they taste pretty good,” Johnson said. Like any farmer, “I just try to make more money out of my fields.”

Her hunch paid off. The lingonberries have sold, to a few Swedes, she said, but mostly to curious marketgoers, like me.

Looking for an expert, I reached out to a Danish friend who lives in Manhattan. “Lingonberries are totally Sweden, really can’t help you there,” she emailed. “Talk to me about gooseberries and I am all in.”

Next, I tried the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension wild blueberry specialist, David Yarborough. Bingo. He described himself as the lingonberry expert “by default.”

The two berries are in the same genus, Vaccinium. “Essentially they have pretty much the same growth requirements as blueberries,” he said, “acidic, well-drained soil.”

“It’s really quite a nice fruit,” Yarborough added. “It’s tart. It’s flavorful. It’s got the taste of a cranberry and the texture of a blueberry.”

The berries are grown commercially in Newfoundland, Yarborough continued, and grow wild not only in Maine, but also in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Over the years, the occasional Maine farmer has attempted to sell them, but none of those efforts have, well, borne much fruit. Yarborough said he has a request sitting on his desk right now for a soil test from a grower who hopes to plant two acres of lingonberries.

“There is certainly a very good niche market,” he said.

But there are challenges. The plants can be difficult to establish. They grow very slowly. And sometimes, they get confused. When that happens, they flower in the fall, Yarborough said, “which means you don’t have the berries the next year.”

Blueberries and lingonberries in a pound cake make a pretty color combination.

Blueberries and lingonberries in a pound cake Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Add to that, lingonberries in the United States don’t have an agent, or in fruit terms, a marketing board – some person, or more likely association, to advocate for them, to tell us how they’ll cure cancer and delay the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and make us smarter, not to mention enhance our green smoothies.

Wait! Hold that thought! This just in from a Google search: Way back in 2011, physician and TV personality Dr. Oz called lingonberries “the new superfruit.” (Alas, it seems the publicity grows as slowly as the plant itself.)

This summer, Johnson is actually having more luck with lingonberries than with her primary crop. The blueberries, she said, are being crowded out by weeds: “My blueberries seem to be shrinking, but the lingonberries seem to like it. They’re expanding.”

Maine’s native lingonberry plants are smaller than those that grow in Sweden, 1/2-inch off the ground here as compared to some 8 inches off the ground there. As an experiment, Johnson bought two plants of the Swedish variety from Fedco. If they take, both the plants and the berries will be bigger, thus easier to harvest.

Meanwhile, what to do with my own very small, very precious stash? I rounded up ideas from Vinland chef David Levi (Portland), Earth at Hidden Pond chef Justin Walker (Kennebunkport), 50 Local chef David Ross (Kennebunk) and the proprietor of the Simply Scandinavian shop in Portland, Thomas Grant:

“Anything. Everything,” Volk said. “Make a jam of them, put them fresh on the plate, pickle them and put in cocktails, and everything in between.”

Such as, the chefs suggested, make a compote to serve with cheese; marinate cheese in concentrated lingonberry juice; cure the berries in water; make lingonberry mustard; bake them into cakes or muffins; pair the berries with pork mousse or pork pâté; mix them into raw beef. Eat them with schnitzel, as the Austrians do.

“It’s always fun to have something bright, beautiful and full of acidity,” Levi said. “(They) would be a welcome addition in my kitchen.”

As they were in mine.

 

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