Tasting the sweetness of summer, berry by berry

By Hope Jahren, The New York Times - August 30, 2017
What is a berry? It is an ovary swaddled within a sugary womb. Plainly put, a berry is the fruition of a flower — the ultimate tautology. (Maggie Chiang / The New York Times)
What is a berry? It is an ovary swaddled within a sugary womb. Plainly put, a berry is the fruition of a flower — the ultimate tautology. (Maggie Chiang / The New York Times)

OSLO, Norway — When I was 23, my Norwegian relatives taught me how to sit still. During the long sunlit evenings in the summer of 1992, my cousins would lead me across the farm to the edge of the forest, each of us lugging a folding chair. There, in a scraggly bramble of wild blueberries, we would set them down a few yards apart, each in our own little patch.

For hours, we faced south, bathing our faces in the golden Arctic light, a dreamy brightness that persisted past midnight. Every few minutes, we’d reach down, pluck a berry and pop it into our mouths. You could find us there most every night during July, starting at 10 o’clock.

At first I couldn’t tolerate it. In my Scandinavian-American family, we were conditioned never to sit, at least not comfortably.

I was endlessly going back to work. We longed for the fleeting respite of being useful, and regarded sleep as a reward for exhaustion, always to be deferred until after the sun goes down.

But the sun wasn’t going down, my cousins finally convinced me, and I got so I could sit, content that at least the blueberry plants were working overtime, their leaves shifting slightly as the sun circled overhead.

By the time we finally got up to move toward bed, a slightly younger cohort of blueberries had become ripe.

We’ll get to them later, we assured one another. During the entirety of July, most of Norway is on vacation. For four beautiful weeks, my only occupation was to sit in the sun and stain my fingers with the fruit of the forest.

What is a berry? It is an ovary swaddled within a sugary womb. Plainly put, a berry is the fruition of a flower — the ultimate tautology.

Most of the plants around you produce flowers. The petals may be beautiful, but they are little more than a frame for stamen and carpel, which serve as the keepers of pollen and ovary.

It takes only one pollen grain to trigger fertilization — to spur the ovary walls to thicken and swell and become fruit. The flesh of a blueberry surrounds one ovary, while a raspberry is a jumble of multiple ovaries; each is the product of a single flower. Green as the leaves beneath them, immature fruit use sunlight to manufacture sugar, and in this way they ripen. All this effort is to clothe a seed, and to slightly better its chances of germination.

Fruit is meant to be a fertilizer shot to the soil, injected exactly where the seed falls; it is ready-to-rot packaging.

I have returned to Norway, almost a century after my great-grandfather left, and made it my home. I even have a little land to my name, and, by my rough calculations, more than 1 million individual flowers bloom upon my overgrown quarter-acre every year. There are easily 10,000 fruits recluse within my garden, and a good number of them are berries.

American in my bones, I have turned berry picking into a chore, albeit a fond one.

Each evening in July, I pick for exactly one hour, then I stop. In my middle age, I’ve realized that finding berries — as with love itself — is about getting enough, not about getting it all.

At the beginning of the month, I pick raspberries, before the thickets are in full thorn.

You’re supposed to wait for the classic signs of readiness, when the musty crimson drupelets fall willingly into your hand, leaving behind a pale naked stump.

I prefer raspberries when they are still rosy and a little unripe, so I pluck them as if they were guitar strings, and the berries bounce into the old Tupperware I inherited from my mother.

As I raise each bough and inspect it — raspberries are best spotted from underneath — I wonder if the neighbors are watching. Raspberry picking always feels indecent somehow, like lifting a woman’s skirt.

On the hottest day, I forage for the wild strawberries that hide under the meadow grasses near our fence. They grow low to the ground, are no bigger than my pinkie fingernail and are similarly unvarnished.

Wild strawberries are nothing like the pulpy behemoths at the grocery store, the ones that were grown hydroponically inside a plastic shroud on the other side of the world.

You can pick wild strawberries with your eyes closed, locating them by smell, for they are two parts perfume to one part taste. An hour of searching might yield a handful if you’re lucky.

Wild strawberries can’t be encouraged, nor can they be discouraged: They come to you unbidden and unearned. They appear, or do not, by the grace of the sun.

In late July, I do the easier harvests, pulling strands of black currants from their taut twigs. As I rend the leathery rinds of these berries with my callous handling, I savor the pungent, medicinal scent.

But my favorite of all are the rips: a peculiar species of gooseberry that I have never seen outside Norway. They hang in pendulous bunches from their bushes, like glassy grapes, bright vermilion in color.

I reach for them impulsively, as if they were dangly earrings in a shop, too flashy to go with my wardrobe, but irresistible when on display.

Rips are not only as beautiful as rubies, they are also the most obliging of berries: Prepacked with pectin, they jelly themselves after cooking, and I reward their cooperation with my prettiest glass jars.

I prepare all berries the same way: I wash them, and dry them, then add just enough sugar to make them look as if they’ve suffered a deep frost.

I simmer them just until their skins burst and collapse. I strain the warm, savory mulch, sending the glistening rivulets of syrup — cerise, carmine or indigo dark as squid ink — through a glass funnel.

We eat the syrup on our waffles, and it runs out before the first snowfall. My son complains that I don’t add enough sugar, but it feels natural to withhold sweetness. Sugar is a dessert, and desserts are for special occasions. I want berries for everyday.

Summer in Scandinavia — a season of sparkling fjords and salmon-colored skies — is surpassingly magical precisely because it does not last.

July begins well past the solstice, and the light grows noticeably shorter each day. By the first of August, the leaves are starting to turn.

In the high latitudes, summer doesn’t end — it dies.

I think about my own death more often in the fall, not so much out of depression as out of empathy: A very real darkness is closing in all around us.

I shake it off as best I know how. I take down my skis and wax them feverishly. I light candle after candle, trying to replace the light. I resist my inborn urge to take my place among the innumerable fallen leaves. I don’t think I am the only person near the Arctic Circle who does this.

It is autumn now, and out my window, gray clouds are passing; the sky is eight months pregnant with snow.

Under the frosted eaves, living knots of raspberry root are bulking up for the winter. They are determined to flourish again next summer, with or without me.