Thursday, June 11, 2020

berry culture and prejudice

What we grew up with we tend to assume has always existed. I thought about this again today, dipping into Örjan Armfelt Hansell's Bärboken (The Berry Book, 1969).

From here I learned that filmjölk, the sour fermented milk beloved by most Swedes (and by me as a child), was relatively unknown as recently as the author's own childhood. He ate his stewed lingonberries with ordinary cow's milk and broken-up crispbread (a practice he attributes to his family's North Småland roots).

Nor, back in the 19th century, did woodland berries play quite as large a role in the Swedish diet as I've always supposed. The main reason was the unavailability, for most ordinary people, of sugar. That made it impossible to preserve most berries. You ate them fresh in August and September, and that was all.

Lingonberries (aka Cowberries, Vaccinium vitis-idaea) were the exception. They contain quite a lot of benzoic acid, a natural preservative, so all you had to do was mash them and bottle them, or lightly boil them. They would then last through the winter, aided by the reliably freezing temperatures. The lingonberry harvest was the most culturally important berry event of the year. The mash or sauce was quite tart, ideal as a meat accompaniment (providing vitamin C through the winter) but also used in soups, breads, for preserving pears, and in many other ingenious ways. The one problem with lingon is that it stimulates the appetite. Thrifty housewives noticed that when they served lingon their man would also demand more bread; accordingly, some of them used it very sparingly!

(Strange to think of this from a UK perspective, where there is next to no tradition of using cowberries, though they grow quite widely in the north-west and Scotland in particular.)

Nevertheless, the lingon harvest was quite small-scale and local until the late 19th century, when German traders became aware of Sweden's berry resources and would pay much higher prices. That was when the idea of the woodland berries as Sweden's "gold" originated; that was when berry-picking became a summer job for whole rural communities, you could make real money from it.

 And with sugar now being cheap and available, the"gold" was not limited to lingonberries but could also extend to bilberries, cloudberries, etc.


But not, on the whole, another common edible species, Vaccinium uliginosum, called Odon in Swedish. (The English name is Bog Bilberry or Northern Bilberry, but I'll use the snappier Swedish name.)

This is a dwarf shrub similar to the normal Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus, called Blåbär in Swedish), but growing usually in wetter areas such as the edges of bogs; the berries are fewer and larger, and the juice does not stain like bilberry juice, but is colourless, like the juice of the blueberries in our supermarkets (American Blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum).

These would seem to be positive factors, but strangely Odon was widely regarded as

an inferior food, yes, even downright unpleasant -- and more or less injurious. Wikström says in Stockholm's Flora: "and as is maintained, somewhat narcotic, causing headaches." Liljeblad: "the berries eaten in quantity are said to cause dizziness." (Bärboken, p. 252)

Hansell gives examples of folk-beliefs about Odon from across Sweden.

From the coast of Småland it's reported that elderly people didn't dare to taste even one, because they were considered to bring on feeble-mindedness if eaten in large amounts. In Västergotland children were warned from eating Odon berries, seeing as they engender worms in the stomach. In Dalsland "it was considered shameful to eat Odon, so we children ate them on the sly", and in Finnerödja [community in Örebro county] Odon berries were regarded as useless after St Lars' Day [10th August] because "snakes spurted venom on them and the children knew that". Even the Nordic Family Book says of Odon berries that "consumed in large numbers they cause dizziness and headaches". (Bärboken, p. 252)

My own childhood experience was simply that when I once pointed out that the berries we were standing among looked different from normal Blåbär, neither my mother nor grandmother could say whether they were good to eat or not, so we avoided them.

I have a great respect for traditional country lore, but it doesn't always get it right. Of course few topics are more prone to rumour, myth, hearsay and hysteria than plant toxicity; nobody wants to experiment or tempt others to do so.

Besides, different parts of the world often have different feelings about the same plant. Odon is a case in point, being used widely in Finland, Poland, Russia, Japan and Canada. The prejudice against Odon is centred in Sweden and Norway. I'm calling it a prejudice because researchers haven't discovered any toxins in Odon berries and it isn't clear if there are many well-attested cases of ill effects.

Odon berries have 10 times more Vitamin C than Blåbär, also anthocyanins and flavonoids, all very good things from the health point of view.

Anyway, Odon's questionable reputation goes back a long way. Linnaeus in 1749 reported that the berries "were pleasing to children and young turkeys, but often cause some dizziness".

How much further back than 1749? Well, we don't know, but the word odon could be significant. According to the SAOB (Svenska Akadamiens Ordbok) it's "probably" related to the Old Swedish word oþer (wild, frenzied, enraged, crazy); the same derivation as odört, the Swedish name for Hemlock (Conium maculatum), which of course is deadly poisonous. The earliest written appearance of the word odon comes from 1590, ironically in a list of drinks, one of which is Odon brännvin.

Other local Swedish names may suggest the generally low esteem in which the berries were held: snorbär (snot-berries), hundbär (hound-berries), galenbär (crazy-berries), blåbukar (blue bellies), fyllebär (drunken-berries), pungbär (pouch-berries), utterbär (otter-berries) (I took the list from this article: ).

Was the low esteem purely a matter of prejudice, or is there any substance to it? Odon berries are sometimes infected by the parasitic fungus Sclerotina megalospora, and one theory is that infected berries might produce symptoms of intoxication, dizziness, etc.

So, what does Odon taste like? Hansell, a fan, describes it as as "tasty, sweet and juicy with a characteristic aroma". But the plant description in Den virtuella floran describes the taste of the berries as "fadd" (insipid), and the SAOB headnote describes them as "föga välsmakande" (only faintly nice-tasting). From what I remember, they tasted pleasant but not as intense as Blåbär.

But taste is a highly subjective sense. It took Europeans centuries to decide that they liked the taste of the decorative plant from America called "tomato". I think I expected Odon to taste a bit inferior. Like another widespread but unesteemed berry, Crowberry (Kråkbär, Empetrum nigrum) it was in fact often resorted to in bad Blåbär years, but sold under the marketable name of the latter.

Of course now I'm looking forward to checking out the taste of Odon more fully. But I'll stick to healthy-looking berries!

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