It’s berry picking time in Iceland
Berry picking is a favourite occupation of many an Icelander, young and old from around the beginning of August to mid-September more or less, but yields depend very much on the interplay between sun, rain and dry spells throughout the summer. Visitors can also get in on the time-honoured tradition, as several varieties of berries grow wild throughout the country and are easily accessible. Generally speaking, prime berry picking regions are in the north and northwest, but nearer to Reykjavik, the best areas are on the slopes of Mt. Esja, on Hellisheiði Heath between Reykjavik and Selfoss, the Heiðmörk recreational area, and in the summerhouse area of ‘Þrastarskógur’ outside of Selfoss. There are two types of blue berries found in Iceland: The popular bilberry or ‘aðalbláber’ (Vaccinium myrtillus) should not be confused with its cultivated American cousin,(Vaccinium cyanococcus) which is often sold in small punnet baskets in supermarkets and is native to North America.
Common names for Vaccinium myrtillus are ‘Bilberry’, ‘Huckleberry’, and ‘Whortleberry’, ‘European blueberry’, ‘winberry’ and ‘blaeberry’ and is found natively in Europe, northern Asia, Greenland, Western Canada, and Western United States. Another type of berry found commonly in Iceland, called ‘bláber’ in Icelandic (blueberry or bog bilberry in English), is lighter in colour and a bit sweeter than the ‘aðalbláber’. Crowberries (Epetrum nigurm) or krækiber in Icelandic, are shiny dark blue-black berries and though a bit bitter in taste, they can be excellent additions to muffin batter and the like and is used for making a type of sweet wine in Iceland called Kvöldsól. Reykjavik Distilleries has just recently come out with a blueberry liqueur which is very nice over vanilla ice cream or enjoyed neat. You might be surprised to learn that it is rare to see wild berries being sold in supermarkets in Iceland, probably because there is going to be at least one person in every Icelandic family who takes up the torch every summer to organise a berry picking outing for family and friends. I mean, why buy them at some exorbitant supermarket price when cousin Sigga is already streets ahead of any supermarket when it comes to berry picking? There are a few rules to keep in mind: berry picking is a right, as long as you are only gathering for your own consumption on public lands or common pasture land. Harvesting in larger quantities on private land does require a permit however. For the ultimate in blueberry fun this summer, check out the Blueberry Festival in Súðavík, 22-24 August. There will be folk music, a blueberry eating contest, country ball (dance) with The Blueberry Band, games, and of course blueberry picking for the whole family.