Blueberries and bilberries
17% of Sweden is said to be covered in blåbär so they inevitably play a prominent part in Swedish cuisine, both in sweet and savoury dishes.
But what does blåbär mean?
If you ask most Swedes what blåbär means in English they will normally tell you it means blueberries. Unfortunately that isn't usually true in Sweden! Certainly blåbär can mean blueberries but usually Swedes are referring to bilberries, not blueberries. The confusion stems from the fact that many Swedes have never have heard of bilberries! However, if you show most Swedes bilberries and blueberries they will normally be able to distinguish between them easily. They will explain that they are both called blåbär and the bilberries are simply vilda blåbär (wild blueberries).
If in doubt it maybe best to use the Latin name, Vaccinium myrtillus. Vaccinium myrtillus grow wild on small bushes close to the ground. They are very common in Sweden with about 17% of the country said to be covered in bilberry bushes. You can also find bilberries growing on heathland in many other parts of northern Europe.
Other names for vaccinium myrtillus
Vaccinium myrtillus are found in northern Europe, Canada and even in colder parts of Australia. The names vary and include:
• bilberries (most parts of England)
• whortleberries (some parts of England)
• blaeberries (sometimes in Scotland)
• fraughans (Ireland)
• huckleberries (some parts of America)
• mustikat (Finland).
Many Swedes will go out picking bilberries using their allemansrätt: the right to roam and pick wild crops on any land. It is a right that most Swedes cherish and leads to many of them spending their weekends foraging.
Because the berries are produced individually rather than in clusters, and on bushes which are close to the ground, they are not easy to pick. In addition they are often camouflaged because they are growing amidst other shrubbery. To make it easier to pick them many Swedes have a special rake/comb contraption (called a bilberry scrabbler) which they use to separate the berries from the bushes. Most supermarkets in Sweden stock them during the blåbär season.
What do bilberries taste like?
Bilberries are smaller and darker than blueberries, appearing to be almost black with a hint of blue. They are dark inside too, whereas blueberries have a pale green flesh. However, you need to take more care when handling bilberries as they will stain everything they come into contact with, including fingers, lips and teeth, a dark purple colour.
Bilberries are more intensely flavoured than blueberries, but they are softer and juicier than blueberries making them difficult to transport. Although you can occasionally find fresh bilberries in markets and gourmet stores in Sweden, they are seldom available in supermarkets.
Bilberries freeze well and the frozen berries can be successfully used in jams, drinks, cakes and savoury dishes, so I always try to keep a box of frozen bilberries in my freezer.
Bog bilberries (Vaccinium uliginosum) are called called odon in Swedish. As their name implies, they tend to be found in boggy areas. The berries are bluer and bigger than bilberries. Unfortunately, odon are pretty boring to eat and so they are seldom picked deliberately, although many commercial jars of blåbärssylt often contain a few odon, not enough to make a difference to the taste.
Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) grow on bushes that grow to about 1.5 m (5') tall with each bush bearing about 3 kg (7 lb) of berries. The berries are bluer, larger but a bit blander than bilberries.
Blueberries (vaccinium corymbosum) are loved by supermarkets everywhere because they keep well as they contain a natural preservative. Since the taste fades with time, it's worth checking when they were picked if possible, certainly don't buy them if they look dried out or if some of them are mouldy, because that probably means that they are very old.
Which is best for cooking?
I think bilberries are nearly always best. I still remember a wonderful bilberry pie I had at a restaurant in Devon about thirty years ago because it was the best fruit pie I have ever eaten!
Having said that, we've got to be realistic: most people outside Sweden will need to use blueberries most of the time as bilberries are hard to obtain. In other words, for all the recipes on this site use bilberries if you can, but don't worry about substituting blueberries if you can't get any bilberries.
I do like blåbärssylt (bilberry jam) so I did some blind tests on three popular products. Much to my surprise IKEA's came out on top!
• IKEA: The cheapest of the three. Prepared with 45 g of fruit per 100 g. Good flavour and texture. It doesn't actually say on the jar where the berries come from, but the advertising in their stores implies that they use bilberries from Sweden.
• Bonne Maman: Prepared with 50 g fruit per 100 g. Disappointing. It was more like a jelly than a conserve. Origin of the "wild blueberries" unclear.
• Ekologisk: The most expensive of the three. Prepared with 52 g of fruit per 100 g. Not as well flavoured as IKEA's and a little bit pastey. Made from blåbär from Bosnia.
Blåbärsglass (bilberry ice cream) is one of my favourites. It is easy to make and can be made with fresh or frozen bilberries (although the flavour and colour is not nearly as good if it is made with cultivated blueberries). It is shown above garnished with a mandelflarn (almond tuile), which are easy to make and can be moulded into attractive shapes if desired. More…
Hjortfilé med blåbärsås
Hjortfilé med blåbärsås (venison with bilberry or blueberry sauce) is a fantastic combination and can be made using a loin of venison, steaks, medallions or, my favourite, using a French trimmed rack of venison. More…
Hjortgryta med blåbär och gnocchi
Hjortgryta med blåbär och gnocchi (venison stew with bilberriy sauce and gnocchi) uses uses bilberry juice, which can be treated pretty much the same as red wine, to add extra depth of flavour to venison, without overpowering it or making the dish too sweet.
Blåbärspaj (bilberry tart) is one of Sweden's most popular pies, but there are countless versions of it. Our recipe uses about 500 g (2¼ cups) of bilberries and has a lattice pastry top. It is delicious with whipped cream, vanilla sauce or one of our delicious ice creams.
If you have young children or grandchildren you may be interested in our review of Bilberry Baby, an eBook for children. More...
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