Struggles in Scandinavia’s Strawberry Season
I arrived in Norway this year at the launch of strawberry season.
About this, I couldn’t be in any doubt. Along the roadways, markers announcing the presence of stalls carrying norske jordbær were as ubiquitous as cardboard signs for Christmas-tree vendors in an American December. The Coop supermarket’s free magazine headlined the berries, offering several intriguing recipes for those who wished to venture away from custom. When I arrived at the baptism of my new goddaughter, near the top of the preparation list for the post-christening repast were fresh strawberries.
It is impossible to overstate how seriously Scandinavians take their strawberries. The harvest runs a very short time – from June to a little into August – with berries ripening just at the start of summer holidays. Hence, Sweden’s jordgubbar are a centerpiece of the nation’s Midsummer celebrations, served for dessert with sugar and milk. Norway’s jordbær, less formally, are consumed as a standard summer snack, munched straight from the carton on a leisurely day out.
The fruit has taken an iconic turn in Scandinavia, with sentimental associations of childhood, family, and the better, freer, longer days of summer. It was doubtless helped in this passage by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957), which literally means “the wild strawberry patch” but idiomatically refers to an uncomplicated, simple place that is too often neglected. Yet the seasonal emergence of delicious treasures at a time of freedom from cold, confinement, and chores creates its own daily references, without help from cinemas and narrators.
Quite simply, summer’s strawberries are rooted in the (until recently) dominant rural culture of these countries.
In Sweden and Norway, the arrival of strawberries gets the type of press coverage Philadelphians are more likely to associate with the opening of the Jersey Shore to summer business. And once the berries hit the markets … wow. A July 14 look at the Rema 1000 at Fauske in Nordland, Norway, which had berries on sale the day before for approximately $2.50/carton, reported a wipe-out of 4,000 cartons in 17 minutes by eager customers. The store owner, still reeling, pointed out that his customers took down 256 cartons a minute.
With this kind of fruit fervor, you’d think growing strawberries in Scandinavia was the most lucrative job a person could have. But as with most jobs, the broader picture is more complicated. Setting aside the short ripening season and the labor involved in bringing the plants to the point where they can produce, and overlooking the dominance of the harvesting process by lower-paid workers from Eastern Europe and Asia, both countries in recent years have experienced notable struggles behind the scenes of the idyllic pastime of berry consumption.
Last week, Norway’s national television news, NRK, ran several reports on the diminishing prospects of a fulfilling jordbærsommer. Strawberry growers in Sørlandet were reporting trouble meeting the demand. Despite daily deliveries to markets of between 150 and 200 tons of Norwegian strawberries, as well as the roadside sales and family berry-picking opportunities, overall production of Norwegian strawberries has fallen to roughly half of what it was a decade ago. And this has implications for both a migrant workforce and the national agriculture.
A key factor in this has been bad weather. Popular sentiment about the rain’s interference with summer has been vocal. While not at the point of following The Times of London in writing editorials demanding that the rain stop, Norwegians on Facebook were creating wry memes likening the Norwegian summer to the biblical flood and suggesting walking a fish on a leash.
Strawberries require soil that is well drained, not susceptible to erosion, and free of weeds. The country’s mountainous geography already limits ideal areas for strawberry cultivation. The heavy rains of the past three summers have made the enterprise downright marshy.
An inch of water per week at the root zone may be helpful, but something closer to a couple inches a day is likely to promote fungal diseases among the crops.
But Norway’s strawberries face other obstacles. Despite ever-rising demand, many farmers feel the economics of cultivation have not favored them, and some complain of over-regulation. In recent years, a number of farmers have moved from strawberry cultivation to easier crops. And Norwegian producers also face their neighbor Sweden’s latest challenge: counterfeit strawberries.
In Sweden, 2012’s strawberry problems centered on the infiltration of markets by foreign berries repackaged as a Swedish product. In a nation that takes immense pride in both the sweetness of its homegrown produce and accurate documentation of products generally, the substitution constitutes a particular – if difficult to counter – offense.
Sweden’s Board of Agriculture has gone so far as to send samples of the intruders to Germany for testing of the water isotopes, to verify that the “Svenska Bär” bearing no identification of a grower are not, in fact, native berries. The isotopes can identify if the berries are Swedish, because of the particular water signature in the country. Officials admit, however, that it’s highly unlikely that they could otherwise determine exactly where the repackaged berries came from.
Farmers in Sweden have had troubles with heavy rainfall similar to those in Norway, so the black-market berries are especially unwelcome this summer. With a harvest of three to four liters of berries per person in Sweden, competition from cheap imposters, while perhaps inevitable, can lead to financial disappointments for growers in a jordgubbar-mad nation. Further, Sweden’s considerable promotion of ecologically sound strawberries – even, in some instances, down to their carbon footprint – can’t come cheaply.
Still, it would take strawberry smuggling on a massive scale to come close to meeting the demand of the markets of Sweden and Norway. The chief dangers to native berry cultivation lie in the decreasing incentives for farmers to invest in the process and in environmental change that threatens whole ecosystems. As long as Nordic strawberries remain of better quality than the imposters – and I can attest, they are amazingly delicious – and as long as standards of living stay strong, consumer desire for ever more summer strawberries seems unlikely to wane.
After all, Nordic strawberries are, like Christmas trees, powerful nostalgia items. And all nostalgia bears with it a sense of hope – in the case of the strawberry in these northern nations, a memory and hope for times when “people smile more” and enjoy greater freedom and closeness to one another and to nature, when they feel more comfortable with themselves in the longer days of sunshine.
That is, when it doesn’t rain.
From Coop Medlem magazine
Orange Crêpes with Marinated Strawberries
- 1 carton strawberries
- 1 dl (3.4 oz) wheat flour
- 2 dl (6.8 oz) milk
- 3 eggs
- dash of salt
- grated peel of 1 orange
- butter for cooking
- 2 dl (6.8 oz) cream, whipped
- Clean the strawberries and cut them in pieces. Put them in a bowl and add as much cointreau as you wish. You may want to allow the strawberries to marinate a couple hours, but this isn’t essential.
- Whip together the flour and milk until the batter is smooth. Blend in one egg at a time, season with a little salt, and fold in orange peel.
- Spoon crêpe batter into a hot pan coated with a little butter and cook to a thin pancake. Roll some strawberry mixture into each crêpe with the whipped cream. Serve.
Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar and Pink Peppercorns*
- 4 handfuls of strawberries
- 4 tbsps balsamic vinegar
- pink peppercorns*
- 2 dl (6.8 oz) sour cream
- 2-3 tbsps powdered sugar
- Cut the strawberries into thick slices and distribute evenly over four plates.
- Trickle the balsamic vinegar over the strawberries and sprinkle the ground pink peppercorns* over them.
- Whip together the powdered sugar and sour cream. Dip a tablespoon in warm water and make an “egg” of sour cream mixture to lay on top of each serving of strawberries.
*Pink peppercorns (rosépeppar, baies roses) may be difficult to find in the United States, as they underwent a ban in the 1980s when some individuals had an allergic reaction to them. Ordinary ground black pepper or fresh chopped green peppercorns may be readily substituted.