This isn’t one of Kate’s regular posts. Nor is it one of my usual techie bits. Skip it if you like.
Growing up a mutt in America has a great many advantages. I can just barely carry a tune on Scottish bagpipes. I saw the Welsh flag flying from a steep roof over Smith Mountain Lake. I’ve eaten lovingly prepared haggis. I know recipes that are only a few generations out of Hong Kong, Beijing, Trapani, Palermo, El Paso, and a host of other places I likely won’t ever see with my own eyes, courtesy of family, friends, and roommates from school.
With all that came a great many stories. A few were of some exotic-sounding morsel with a mysterious name that caught my interest as a lover of fresh berries. Some described cloudberries as blond raspberries but others scoffed at that, saying the soft flavor and sweetness couldn’t be compared with any other food on the planet.
One of my favorite authors wrote about cloudberries in her Torvingen series, and those few paragraphs gave me more of an insider’s view than I could have guessed on my own. I mean no disrespect, but please note that while this post may have a few typos that are my fault, many of what U.S. readers interpret as misspellings in the snip below are from a different version of English. Also, the ø is pronounced something like the o in “word” or the i “third.”
“Now, we need berries for the dessert. Aud”–I stood; it had always been my job, from the time I was seven or so and strong enough to carry up the big glass jars from the cellar–”a jar of…” she looked from me to Julia and back again, “the molte, I think. Yes, the special molte,” she repeated with a certain satisfaction.
I hadn’t been in Tante Hjørdis’s cellar for years. As a child it had been a wonderland: past the laundry with stone troughs, which I imagined might have been used during the war to cut up captured Nazis; past the mysterious sheeted shapes in the storage room; to the cavern of treasures, a long room, narrow and dry, lined with row after row of shelves, each bending under the weight of pickled gherkins and canned tomatoes, or sauces and preserved berries, that glowed with muted colour–red and gold and emerald–like precious jewels under the dust of centuries. I ran my hand along the shelves, remembering being eight, fourteen, nineteen. . . .it was different. It took me a moment to realize that the difference was illumination: the single, swinging bare bulb of my childhood had been replaced by two halogen floor lights. It only made the colours richer.
The last four jars of special molte were on the top shelf. I’d heard the story of their picking: during the war, when there was no sugar to be had, she had picked them and put them whole into two-litre jars with fresh water only, sealed them, and put them in a cold stream to chill. I expected to have to stand on tiptoe to reach the big jars, but that was a child’s memory; the top shelf barely came to my chin. I lifted one down, held it to the light. Fifty years old. They looked like golden raspberries. Perhaps Hjørdis exaggerated for effect and they were indeed preserved in sugar or some kind of syrup, or perhaps there was just a kind of magic in her cellar, where time and dreams stood still. I would not have been surprised to find myself three feet tall again, with both front teeth missing.
When I got back upstairs, Julia and Hjørdis were in the kitchen; Julia poured coffee into cups, Hjørdis whipped the cream.
“You always did spend a long time in that cellar, even as a child,” she said, when she saw me standing there with the jar. “Bring that through to the dining room.”
I put the jar on a placemat. Hjørdis, still standing, put one hand on the glass lid and the other around the wooden handle on the wire fastening. She pulled, then pulled again more firmly. “You have to seal them tight,” she said. She had told me when I was a child that sometimes the rubber lining between lid and jar started a chemical reaction with the fruit and fused to the glass. She was having none of that. She put her strong back into it, and the lid came free with an audible pop. I shut my eyes and breathed. Lazy late summer sun, warm grass, the cold, bitter scent of the glacier half a mile away. Hjørdis ladled a good pile into a metal bowl and took it back into the kitchen. Over the sound of the food mixer, I said to Julia, “These are molte. Called cloudberries in English. Families guard the location of their favourite patch as closely as national secrets. More closely.” I dipped one out with a spoon. It lay still and golden and perfectly formed in its pool of liquid. I held it out. “This is how your hair smells.”
“Ah-ah,” said Tante Hjørdis from the doorway, “don’t eat that. The only way to taste cloudberries for the first time is in Angel’s Stew.” She put the bowl of sweetened whipped cream and berries on the table and plucked the spoon from my hand. “Aud, dish that out while I go get the coffee, as Julia seems to have forgotten to bring it with her.”
We sat. I dished the delicious mixture into three small bowls. “The last time Tante Hjørdis brought out her special molte was when my cousin Uta brought her fiancé to lunch with the family and then announced she had already married him that morning. She brought out a jar, too, when my mother married my father, though she told me once that she should have known he would leave her and regretted ever letting him taste them.”
Julia’s hand was cool and soft on mine. “She will never have cause to regret this.” A statement of fact. She will never have cause to regret this. The sun will rise in the east and set in the west. Two and two is four.
Those paragraphs rang true with what I heard of cloudberries before reading The Blue Place; that I might receive a taste of the fruit while an honored guest in Northern Europe but would never see the plant that produced the berry without first fighting not only every member of a household, but the guests, the pets, animals in the surrounding woods, and every shadow that fell between.
Things seem to have changed. I walked into a local market that specializes in European imports last week and was truly shocked to see cloudberry preserves on the shelf. I immediately grabbed a jar. The only thing that mattered was that it was the first time I had a chance at berries I had only heard reverently about. I could taste cloudberries. It was a marvel that I, an American, could hold cloudberries in my hand. I would feast the next morning!
Then my heart caught up. I stared at the jar marked “Product of Sweeden” and was rushed by a swarm of emotions that I can’t begin to explain. The contents of the jar in my hand were molte, the moltebeere, malina moroszka. They shouldn’t have been shipped to America. According to the stories I heard, they shouldn’t be on shelves in any store. They shouldn’t have been in my hand. I had no right.
My head and heart played cobra and mongoose for at least a dozen trains of thought. Had globalization pushed so far that hard-working farming families sell cloudberries because cabbage, onions, and carrots don’t bring enough profit in the market to keep food on their tables? Or did yet another greedy business decide to shred tradition by offering a lot of money for the location of or seeds from berry patches?
If a group of families made either decision or some other arrangement, who was I to say that it wasn’t good enough? I work in a downtown office and make a reasonable living while men and women not two hundred miles away tend to the land or their flocks and herds in honorable and sustainable ways. Yet those farmers and herders have to constantly worry about the competition of larger, far less honorable businesses, buying equipment from those same competing businesses, and sometimes scraping enough to pay the mortgage. How was I helping anyone by not purchasing a product that interested me?
My guilt won. I put the jar back on the shelf. However, Kate sensed my interest, likely due to exclamations my mouth made without consulting my mind first. I think I all but jumped up and down when I first took hold of the container. She bought the twelve dollar jam over my feeble protests.
I cannot describe the flavor any more than I can describe my emotions upon seeing the product in a store, but the ingredient list contains only a few items and the few preservatives do not taint the very subtle flavor of the berries insofar as I can tell. The texture is smooth, punctuated by blackberry-like seeds. My overall impression is a similarity to raspberry jam in mouth feel but with a taste like placing a touch of sugar on my tongue and inhaling as much as my lungs will hold of a strong winter wind blown across a fresh water lake. That is the best description I can manage.
I stared at the jar on my kitchen counter for some time this morning before opening it. I tasted the preserves alone, from a wooden spoon (not metal) before spreading the sugared berries and then cream on a scone. I don’t know that it was enough reverence to past tradition, especially since I feel like I broke that tradition by eating from a jar clearly labeled to be sold in the United States. I have no clue if the fact that I can’t seem to put my words in proper order to show that this means something to me will properly honor whatever sacrifice/ grand business idea (I’m still undecided) brought the berries to my doorstep.
And, please don’t laugh that I bowed to the jar before opening it.