The Rare, Elusive Swedish Berry You Have to Try
The arctic raspberry is brightening everything from cocktails to desserts in Sweden's northern regions.
If Sweden had an official food, a likely contender would be the lingonberry. Ruby red and naturally bitter, it’s a constant companion to one of the country's other famous exports, meatballs, among countless other dishes. Lingonberries flourish in Sweden's wilderness, making them ubiquitous in markets, home kitchens, and restaurants. But in the country's northern reaches grows the far more elusive and, arguably, flavorful arctic raspberry, a special fruit that savvy chefs and bartenders in the region are putting in everything from cocktails to desserts.
Carina Johansson, owner of Luleå Konfektyr in Luleå, about 560 miles north of Stockholm, uses the berries and other raw botanicals to create the treats she sells in her confection shop. "Arctic raspberries often grow in trenches, on beaches, and in damp meadows, and rarely in large quantities," she says, adding that they flower in May and June and are picked between mid-July and early August.
That might sound straightforward enough, but unlike lingonberries, which can be harvested relatively easily, harvesting arctic raspberries is a tedious, time-consuming process. "The berries have to be picked and rinsed one by one," Johansson says. She adds that, in contrast to raspberry and strawberry stems, which are easy to pluck away, arctic raspberries' stems are hard to remove. "You need to use a pair of scissors or tweezers to get each one out," she says.
That painstaking process is reflected in the berries' price tag. Johansson says that wild arctic raspberries often sell for a thousand Swedish krona per kilogram, or roughly $52 per pound. (In contrast, fresh lingonberries go for around 50 Swedish krona per kilogram, or about $3 per pound.) You can catch a break by buying farmed berries, which local growers like Mockträsk Bärodling, a berry farm in Boden, sell for about 850 Swedish krona per kilogram, or about $44 per pound. But, Johansson warns, "Some people say the farmed berry has a very different smell and flavor than the wild one."
As for what that flavor is, exactly, ask five different Swedes to describe it and you'll likely get as many answers, ranging from "something between a raspberry and a strawberry" to "wine-like." According to Axel Isholt, a bar manager at Rex restaurant in the northern university city of Umeå, arctic raspberries are higher in acidity than their more common cousins, and that they're much more tangy and tart. Guests at Rex's speakeasy-style bar, Juliette, can order a Swedish 57, a Scandinavian take on the traditional French 75, that includes arctic raspberry and Bianco Vermouth. Smooth, bright, and with a just-right sweet-tart balance, it's dangerously drinkable.
And as for those stems? "They have the most amazing bitter flavor, and they add a great botanical, earthy quality to any type of infusion or syrup you make," Isholt says. He suggests slow-juicing the stems and using the extracted liquid to make bitters.
Several blocks away from Rex, cozy Köksbaren delights diners with its farm-to-table dishes, including arctic raspberries that chef and co-owner Peter Stenmark sources from local foragers. "We always use arctic raspberries in some form in a dessert, and we always have a cocktail and a homemade soda," he says. His desserts include arctic raspberries with fried spongecake, almond, and chocolate ice cream, and rullrån—Swedish rolled wafers—with arctic raspberries, mascarpone, and amaretto. Stenmark capped off our own lunch at Köksbaren in December with a Västerbotten cheese tart, complete with a gingerbread crust, arctic raspberry topping, and zingy yuzu ice cream. Foraging season for arctic raspberries is short; like many chefs, Stenmark freezes his bounty to ensure their presence on his menus year-round.
"Wild arctic raspberries are the most exclusive berries in Sweden, and probably in the world," says Stenmark. "All of the work [that goes into] picking the wild arctic raspberries builds up expectations, and when you taste a ripe arctic raspberry, you know it's worth it," he says.
From Umeå, the drive nearly 400 miles north, to Jukkasjärvi, is worthwhile not only for an overnight at the famous Icehotel there, but also to experience the ice menu at its eponymous main restaurant and the tasting menu at its more posh dining room, The Veranda. Chef Samuel Jahn concludes the ice menu with an architecturally styled white-chocolate-and-arctic-raspberry panna cotta. He wraps up The Veranda's 12-course menu with four desserts, the first of which is a refreshing, and relatively simple, arctic raspberry sorbet.