Lingonberries are widely used in Swedish food. They are considered to be an essential accompaniment to many Swedish dishes, most notably köttbullar (meatballs), kåldomar (stuffed cabbage rolls) and raggmunk (potato pancakes).
Lingonberries are also known as cowberries and occasionally as mountain or lowbush cranberries, red bilberries or whortleberries.
Where they grow
Lingonberries grow in the wild in Sweden on small bushes in woodlands and on moorlands. They ripen in August and September and are picked with a scrabbler, a wide fork-like tool, which can strip a bush very quickly.
Although the berries might look attractive on bushes they are not good to eat in their raw state as they are quite bitter. They have shiny, rather hard skins when fresh, but they are transformed with a little sugar. Then they become quite sophisticated, as the combination of their natural bitterness with the sweetness from the sugar goes well with game, meat, fish and with several desserts.
Lingonberries are full of powerful antioxidants which are said to neutralise the sun's radiation and help prevent skin damage. Eating lingonberries is said to ward off certain cancers and to help prevent some types of infection. As a result Swedish children were traditionally encouraged to have lingonberry jam with porridge for breakfast and to have a portion of lingonberries with many main courses.
Fresh lingonberries are sold all over Sweden in August and September. They are surprisingly inexpensive at around 50 SEK/kg (€5/kg, £4/kg, $3/lb).
They are somewhat messy, as the juice tends to leak so often market traders put on a pair of plastic gloves when serving lingonberries.
Out of season, it is also easy to buy frozen lingonberries in Sweden.
Outside of Scandinavia it is hard to buy fresh lingonberries, but sometimes it is possible to buy frozen lingonberries from specialist shops or online suppliers.
Swedes consume massive quantities of lingonberries, so it is quite common to find offers for 5 kg of lingonberries on markets in Sweden! Most Swedes have a large bag of lingonberries in their freezer.
Making rårörda lingon
Because lingonberries are rather bitter they are seldom served on their own. Instead they are usually transformed into rårörda lingon (literally, raw stirred lingonberries). It is very easy to make:
1. Pick over the berries to remove any leaves or twigs, rinse them and then drain so the berries are reasonably dry.
2. Weigh the berries and put them in a bowl or a jar.
3. Add 50% by weight of caster (superfine) sugar. Stir or shake every now and again until the sugar has all dissolved, which might take a day or more. Have a taste and add a little more sugar if desired, but avoid adding so much sugar that it will not dissolve. (Some people squash some of the berries with the back of a spoon to release some of their juice to make it easier to dissolve the sugar, but I try and avoid doing this as I prefer the berries to be left whole.)
4. Store in a cool dark place in sterilised jars*.
*Sterilise by washing in a dishwasher or by putting rinsed jars in an oven at 125ºC (250ºF, gas ½, fan 120ºC) for 10 minutes. Let the jars cool before filling them.
Rårörda lingon keeps forever in sterilised jars, thanks to the high level of benzoic acid which acts as a natural preservative. However, the colour can fade a bit after a couple of months, so I tend to keep some berries in the freezer and make a fresh batch every now and again.
Buying rårörda lingon
In the UK, Felix rårörda lingon can be obtained from specialist suppliers or online. It is more jelly-like and has fewer whole berries than homemade rårörda lingon, but the flavour is good.
Lingon sylt (lingonberry jam) is available from IKEA. In my opinion, it is too jam-like and doesn't have nearly as much flavour as either homemade or Felix rårörda lingon.
Lingonberry drinks are popular in Sweden. They can be served hot or cold, but are more popular warm. At Ishotellet (The Ice Hotel) guests staying in the cold rooms are woken in the morning with a nice mug of warm lingonberry juice, something that is very much appreciated after a very cold night.
Outside of Scandinavia, lingonberry drinks are sold at specialist shops, in IKEA stores and online.
Most lingonberry drinks have water, sugar and preservatives added, but Lingon 100% has nothing added. The berries are picked from the forests near Grythyttan and Saxhyttan in central Sweden, pressed and the juice is then pasturised before bottling.
If drunk neat, Lingon 100% is quite dry, but it makes an interesting alcohol-free alternative to snaps. Alternatively, it can sweetened and diluted to taste. It can also be used as the basis for Swedish cocktails and for flavouring sauces.
Lingon 100% is available in many European countries, either from specialists shops or online suppliers.
Growing your own
In the UK it is possible to buy lingonberry plants from specialist suppliers. I am growing two under the shade of an apple tree. So far they have yet to produce any berries and, as mine are only growing very slowly, it looks like I will have a long wait before I can make my own rårörda lingon from home-grown berries.
Potato pancake with bacon and lingonberries
Raggmunk (potato pancakes) with bacon and lingonberries make a for a delicious combination for brunch or a midweek meal. Read more...
Köttbullar (meatballs) are nearly always served with pressed cucumber, mashed potatoes and lingonberries. Lingonberry jam is a good alternative if you can't get rårörda lingon. Read more...
Stuffed cabbage rolls
Kåldomar (stuffed cabbage rolls) are usually served sprinkled with a few whole lingonberries, a side dish of rårörda lingon, boiled potatoes and a syrupy sauce or gravy. Delicious! Read more...
Lingonberries are also used as an accompaniment to fish. They go particularly well with herring fried in a coating of whole grain rye flour, served with mashed potatoes.
Hot rice pudding is traditionally served at Christmas in Sweden and is often accompanied by rårörda lingon because the sharpness of the berries contrasts well with the creaminess of the rice. Lingonberries are also used in sauces, bread, cakes and desserts.
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