“KVALITETSGARANTI: Denna produkt är utvald och kvalitetstestad. Skulle du ändå inte vara nöjd med dess kvalitet, ber vig dig höra av dig till oss.”

What’s the lingo? What’s going on? It’s just the quality guarantee on the lingon.

Lingon? Do I perhaps mean Klingon? Not at all. Although the contents of the package are a gory colour, they are altogether vegetable. Or, more precisely, berry. The front of the plastic tub bears the legend LINGON SYLT and then, below a picture of the eponymous berries, 1,5 kg.

Yeah, baby. It’s a 1.5 kg tub of lingonberry sauce. And only $10 at the annual Swedish Christmas Fair (just $1 more than three styrofoam cups of glögg)! It may be the only cheap food item ever to come out of Sweden (and yes, although the brand is Eldorado, it is made in Sweden). But when 1.5 kg is probably about a week’s supply for a typical Swedish household, you have to price it to move…

Oh, the lingon is the hot centre of Swedish cuisine, its pulsing red lingam. OK, maybe that’s a slight overstatement, but think of the role of ketchup in American cuisine. Lingonberries are something in that line for the Swedes. You’d think that they kept them healthy. And maybe they do.

I first heard of lingonberries in the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook my mom had when I was growing up. In the instructions for our single most-used recipe in the book, Swedish pancakes, was the final admonition, “Pass lingonberry jam.” Which, however, we never did. Look, we were in Alberta in the ’70s, OK? Also we weren’t Swedish. Sorry. Reg and I just buttered the pancakes, poured quarter-cups of white sugar on them (you think I’m exaggerating but I’m not), rolled them up and ate them. So it was years before I discovered the wonder that is lingonberry. Discovered that it’s really pretty much a small cranberry.

Indeed, lingonberries are also called mountain cranberries, and they are a related species to cranberries. But they’re also called csejka berry, foxberry, qualiberry, beaver berry, red whortleberry, bearberry (though I’m pretty sure what we called bearberries in Alberta were another thing… hmmm…), cougarberry, mountain bilberry, partridgeberry, and cowberry. It’s that last one that reveals its link to cranberries.

You see, the Latin word for ‘cow’ is vacca, and the related adjective is vaccinium. Yes, as in vaccine – the first vaccine was cowpox virus used to stimulate antibodies against the related smallpox virus. And the name of the genus of both the lingonberry and the cranberry is Vaccinium. It does make them sound like health food, doesn’t it? But it’s just because apparently cows liked them.

I gotta say, though, if cows can eat these berries straight off the bush, they have a pretty good tolerance for tartness. These things need quite a lot of sugar before they’re palatable to human tongues – though once they are, they’re wonderful. (And who doesn’t want a little tart tongue from time to time?)

The word lingonberry doesn’t really capture the crisp, fresh tartness quite as cranberry does; cran has a crisp start, but lingon is soft – think about the Chinese fruit called longan: much more suited to its name. But lingon does have that sticky, bouncy ng in the middle, which is good for a Swedish sound. And if you’re speaking Swedish, you don’t need that berry bit; it is indeed lingon just by itself. It’s related to ljung ‘heather’.

But enough linguistics. It’s time for some lingonguistics. We still have probably 1200 grams left to eat (we bought it on Saturday)… Jag behöver en sked! (I need a spoon!)

One response to “lingonberry

  1. “Pulsing red lingam”?!

    If Wikipedia is to be believed (and I generally do, to a first approximation, anyway), you’re right that the bearberries you grew up with aren’t the same as lingonberries. Oddly, their lingonberry article mentions the alternate name bearberry, but their main bearberry article (I didn’t read any of the other 5(!) mentioned on the disambiguation page) has no mention that bearberry is an alternate name for the lingonberry.

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