In tune with the midnight sun, cloudberries light up the swamps of Finnish Lapland for an all-too-brief few weeks each July.
In the self-proclaimed ‘cloudberry capital’, Ranua, locals pounce on the season with a biological urgency, downing tools, seizing buckets and heading out into the boggy wilds. They are foraging for the honeyed taste of summer in berries that will linger long into the snowbound winter. ‘Cloudberry fever’, they call it.
Into the swamps
There is an art to cloudberry foraging. I’ve been traipsing through deep bogs, wisped with the pearl-tipped strands of cotton grass and plumed with tall pines, for hours. There is nothing to judge the passing of time but the changing position of the sun as it emerges through billowing clouds. ‘Don’t pick the red ones,’ advises my guide Riikka Tuomivaara. ‘They aren’t ripe yet.’ Counterintuitively, Finland’s most elusive, sought-after berry becomes paler the riper it gets: ranging from deepest crimson to peachy orange, with just one precious berry per stalk.
I compare my handful of berries to the pile in Riikka’s amply filled bucket. ‘You’ll get the hang of it,’ she encourages. And I do. Little by little my eyes alight on the amber berries. The swamps that threaten to suck me down into a watery grave become easier to negotiate, as I hop between spongy islets of dry moss. I develop the knack of tentatively picking with one hand whilst wildly beating away swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes with the other. My bucket begins to slowly fill. The picking becomes methodical, almost meditative.
We stop to picnic by an open fire in a middle-of-nowhere glade, the sun sluicing through high treetops. I try my first berry. It is tarter than a raspberry, with a creamy, syrupy juice that reminds me of biting into a luscious peach. Born from the melting snow, the berries flower in June when the last trace of ice melts then ripen six weeks later. More than just berries to Finns, they herald the arrival of summer after a dark, bitterly cold winter.
Prized as much for their scarcity as for the flavour they bring to a pie or jam, cloudberries are notoriously hard to find. They thrive in the boggy wetlands in remote Arctic climates, such as here in Southern Lapland but, even then, finding them demands a degree of skill and stamina. While they grow in other pockets of Northern Scandinavia, Russia and Canada, it is fair to say that no country puts them on a pedestal quite like Finland.
Ever since I first heard about these berries – called hilla in Ranua and lakka almost everywhere else – these swamps and forests had taken on a mythical quality in my imagination. Foraging for them brings a dash of back-aching, mosquito-ridden reality to the equation, but it is no less magical for it. The breezy silence, the wide open skies, the looking-glass lakes, the die-straight roads piercing through endless tracts of forest in a beautiful monotony: cloudberries in every sense draw you further away from civilisation and deeper into nature.
Indeed, the solitary pursuit of cloudberry picking sums up the Finnish psyche neatly. ‘Here in Lapland we need space,’ explains Riikka. ‘If our nearest neighbours are less than a mile away, we start to feel claustrophobic.’ Most cloudberry pickers go alone. They like it that way – the peace and time to reflect as they move between the marshes for many hours. They have plenty to choose from, with more than 60% of the region given over to swamps that subdivide into three kinds: räme (pine bogs), korpi (drier swamps with trees) and avosuot (treeless bogs).
‘Other berries grow in Lapland, too,’ says Riikka. ‘There are blueberries in July, lingonberries in mid-August and cranberries in September.’ Then there is one hard-to-find berry that excites locals even more than the cloudberry: the Holy Grail that is the mesimarja (Arctic raspberry), which is three times smaller and flourishes by lakes and rivers. As I edge my way around a lake in the hope of finding one, Riikka points out wild bees. ‘We have a saying that if you stand on one, you will lose 10 kilos of berries,’ she warns. I watch my step.
By the time we call it a day, Riikka is visibly glowing with health and happiness. ‘I love it, this time of year,’ she breathes. ‘The berries. The exercise. The nature. The fresh air.’ I can see her point as we emerge from woods onto a road as wild reindeer cross, their antlered forms backlit by the pastel flare of a would-be sunset.
Everywhere you go in Ranua in summer, the excitement for cloudberries is palpable. ‘It’s total cloudberry fever from the first berry until the festival celebrating them in August,’ says Riikka. This is partly due to the fact that the berries cannot be grown commercially as they require too much water; so finding them is a treasure hunt. Hence the reason why many locals become protective about their patch, going to great lengths to keep them a secret, in some cases quite literally. ‘I’ve walked along fences 10km long only to discover the very best cloudberries hidden behind them,’ Riikka tells me. ‘Then there are the tales of bears to scare away potential pickers – cloudberry bears, we call them.’
While the cloudberry is much more than a passing food fad in Finland, its appeal has certainly been bolstered by its ‘superfood’ status: one single berry contains more vitamin C than an orange, and is packed with omega-3 and omega-6, among other substances reported to have health-giving properties.
At the tiny cloudberry market in the centre of Ranua, there is one man who knows more about the virtues of hilla than any other: his name is Taisto Illikainen, simply the ‘cloudberry professor’ to locals, and he has been 50 years in the business. Taisto determines the start of the cloudberry season, records the number of kilos of berries picked and fixes the prices. In 2016 a kilo is bought for €10 and sold for €15, which is roughly average. ‘A couple of years ago, it was too cold and berries were scarce so the price rose to €35 per kilo,’ he nods, eyes sparkling at the chance to talk about his favourite subject.
A Swedish couple arrive in a pick-up, their annual holiday once again devoted to cloudberry picking. They are not alone. ‘Cloudberries are our food and culture, but they also bring work,’ says Taisto, as he deftly weighs the berries and pours them into smaller containers. ‘Locals as well as people from Russia, Estonia, Poland, even Thailand come to pick them. It can be profitable for a good picker, like the one who brought me 100 kilos in a day. Some even pick through the night.’
Just as popular as foraging for the berries is the act of eating them. ‘There are Finns who come all the way from Helsinki, 800km away, just to pick up a load of cloudberries, then drive straight back,’ Taisto laughs. ‘It’s crazy.’
Ranua’s sprinkling of shops and restaurants make much of the beloved hilla, too. Ranua-Revontuli (ranuarevontuli.fi) is a winery specialising exclusively in berry wines – of which the cloudberry is king – and Pizzaravintola Vaaka (pizzaravintolavaaka.fi) has a reindeer and cloudberry creation (Lapland’s very own answer to pizza Hawaii) on the menu. Local bakers prepare sumptuous cakes with layers of cloudberries, jam and whipped cream. In the houses on the fringes of the village, hours are spent freezing the berries, turning them into the compote that accompanies leipäjuusto (squeaky cheese) and using their leaves and seeds to make dense breads, teas and even cosmetics.
‘Cloudberries are our gold,’ enthuses Riikka. ‘When it is -35°C in winter, they are the taste of summer. Eating them, you can picture yourself back in the swamps where the sun is shining.’ But for now, I don’t have to picture it, I’m right there. The sun warms my back as once again I slip into my boots and strike out into the lonely bogs where the golden berries grow.
Make it happen
Ranua’s tourist office can arrange cloudberry guides. Should you prefer to go it alone, they publish a handy map pinpointing cloudberry hotspots. You’ll need sturdy boots, waterproofs and a bucket, as well as a mosquito head net or hat, and ample repellent and refreshments. The closest airport is in Rovaniemi, an hour’s drive north.