Picking Wild Berries In Iceland

Picking Wild Berries In Iceland

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Anna Andersen
Photos by
Alísa Kalyanova

Like many Icelanders, Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir was brought up picking berries. The activity of going out to the country to pick berries, called berjamór in Icelandic, is still practiced today though Guðrún said it’s less common than it used to be when she was young.

Preferring to offer tours that aren’t available from the big tour providers, Guðrún started taking people berry picking this summer. As a rule of thumb, the berry-picking season is August to mid-September, but because this June was particularly cold (yes, the coldest June since 1952), Guðrún told us the berries were ripe later than usual.

The trip began in downtown Reykjavík where Guðrún picked us up, and proceeded to drive us out of the city to find some ripe berry picking grounds. We had only been driving for about thirty-minutes when she pulled over to the side of Nesjavellir road, and we had arrived. It really doesn’t take long to leave the bustle behind for expansive moss covered lava fields.

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An abundance of crowberries

Guðrún handed us each a recycled plastic tub that had originally contained Icelandic mjúkís ice cream (an ice cream worth trying), and we moseyed off on our separate ways, picking through patches of crowberries. Though it is tempting to grab the berries by the handful, Guðrún advised us that the big ones are better and that we should pick them one by one. “Leave some for the birds,” she also called out a bit later.

We hadn’t been picking for very long before it started drizzling, and we hurried back to the car (advice: never go out in Iceland without a raincoat). The rain, however, didn’t put a damper on our trip. The weather in Iceland is notorious for changing from one moment to the next and as we drove on down Nesjavegur road, we seemed to be straddling the rain to our right and clear skies to our left.

While I was already quite proud of the stash of berries I had collected, Grapevine photographer Alísa’s tub was practically empty. She had admittedly been eating them faster than she could collect them. By the way, there’s no need to wash the berries before eating them (as long as you steer clear of dingle berry droppings), as they grow wild, pesticide-free.

A few kilometres later, we pulled over again at a beautiful small valley. This time before we set off, Guðrún offered us some delicious crowberry muffins that she had baked the night before, motivating us to step up our berry picking game.

Absorbed in the task at hand, I was struck by how peaceful it was there. Apart from the muted sound of berries dropping into my tub and a raven crying in the distance, there was a marked stillness around us. And that, I thought, is what the Icelandic experience is really about. Of course, it’s also about the rain, and the rainclouds soon caught up with us, and we once again hurried off to the car (really, remember to bring your raincoat!).

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A small heaven of bilberries

We headed back in the direction of Reykjavík, making one last stop for the afternoon. Until then, we had been finding the occasional bilberry amongst the abundance of crowberries, but this stop turned out to be a small bilberry haven. The bilberry looks like a blueberry, and in Icelandic it’s called “bláber,” which translates directly to “blueberry,” but it’s actually a bit smaller and more flavourful than the blueberry.

Being bigger and juicier than the slightly bitter crowberry, the bilberry is definitely my favourite of the two (wild strawberries are my favourite of Iceland’s berries, but they are even more rare than the bilberry). With more self-control I might have been able to make an Icelandic “bláberjasúpa” (bilberry soup), but here I ran into the same problem our photographer was having, and very few of the bilberries I picked actually ended up in my tub.

I was surprised to learn that none of these berries are picked commercially and sold at the supermarket, so the only opportunity to get them is to go out and pick them yourself. Guðrún didn’t know why they weren’t sold at the market (instead we import expensive blueberries), but she figured it’s because people simply pick them on their own. The crowberries are, however, picked for the purposes of making “Kvöldsól” (Evening Sun), which is Iceland’s only home grown red wine.

Finally, our hands and tongues stained purple, we piled back into the car with our tubs full of berries, and returned to the city where it was incidentally sunny and there were no signs of it having rained. My antioxidant-rich berries would soon become crowberry muffins ala Guðrún’s recipe, which she gladly shared with us when we left.

It’s A Blue Berry, Not A Blueberry!

Those blue berries in Iceland, which are called “bláber,” are not blueberries. They’re actually bilberries or bog bilberries. Both of which look like blue berries, but are slightly smaller and more flavourful to varying degrees.

This tour was offered by Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir of Mountainclimbing.is. See www.mountainclimbing.is for more information or contact Guðrún at ghs@mountainclimbing.is.