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Berries Lost in Translation

I (Nancy, not Tom)  moved to England from Norway about six years ago. Norway does not have a particularly well publicised culinary tradition and boiled potatoes and white fish come in many iterations – but there are a lot of foraging opportunities over the summer. We used to collect mussels, cantrell mushrooms, raspberries, cloud berries, crowberries to make cordial and most important of all, blueberries. Or at least, I thought they were blueberries.

Blåbær, as they are called in Norwegian, are an essential part of the Skandanavian summer. They grow abundantly in the acidic soil of the forest floor and I remember many trips out with my picker (sort of like a wooden claw you draw through the bushes) and a milk pail. We would usually eat most of them on pancakes, mashed with sugar, but they also got made into jam, cordial and syrup for the winter.

When I moved away I found that blåbær were a necessary sacrifice, and was dismayed by the flaccid white fleshed blueberries I saw in the supermarket now and again. How could they be blueberries when they’re not even blue! They were imported from America and I was assured that the only blueberries that grew in England were cultivated – no wild picking sprees here!

Bring on a trip to Lickey Hills last summer. I was picnicking with friends when I spied a familiar vivid green-leafed shrub in between the ferns. I could hardly believe it – it was too early for fruit, but this was definitely blåbær. A little investigation later, I discovered that language was all that was hiding my blue bounty in this country – here they are called bilberries, not blueberries at all, and hill I was sitting on top of – Bilberry Hill. I’d been looking for the wrong berry all along.

The reason for sharing this story with you all is I suppose, something about the variety of cuisines that local food could support. Things we feel like we can only import can happily be cultivated in the UK, and without intensive agricultural techniques either (whether or not we can grow enough to actually and affordably feed people – I don’t know). My Norwegian foraging habits are naturally provided for, as are many other cultural culinary traditions. I recently visited True Food Co-op in Reading, a research trip for South Birmingham Food Co-op and saw their locally grown, organic cayenne chilli, mooli and cavolo nero. Martineau Gardens in Edgbaston is growing organic chickpeas, sweet potatoes, barlotti beans and, most exciting of all, kiwi fruit!

It’s not all root vegetable stews with a bit of creative growing and a good Norwegian-English dictionary.

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