Few people have ever tasted partridgeberries, or even heard of them, but for cruisers from the northeastern part of the United States to Newfoundland or from the Pacific Northwest, these small red berries are a gourmet’s delight, worthy of the effort it takes to pick and process them.
Partridgeberries, also known as lingonberries or cowberries, are ground-hugging plants native to the Arctic tundra and the wind-swept moors of subarctic regions. They ripen in September and are said to be rich in antioxidants. So when I was delayed on the northern tip of Newfoundland awaiting a new transmission for Kuan Yin, my 32-foot Tahitiana, I ventured out one sunny afternoon to harvest the little red treasures that local people were telling me about.
It was moose-hunting season, so I wore a bright-yellow jacket and carried a big blue plastic bucket for my bounty. Identifying partridgeberries wasn’t difficult.
They grow singly on trailing evergreen vines with paired, roundish leaves. The only other red berries on the moors grow in clusters and are a brighter red in color and almost translucent. To pick them, I crouched down or worked on my hands and knees, my fingers seeking out the dark-red fruits half-hidden under tiny green leaves. I soon saw the benefit of walking a little farther afield to seek out the sunniest, sheltered spots where partridgeberries thrive. As luck would have it, I found the thickest patch only on my third afternoon and just as daylight was fading. My hands were cold and so numb that the abundant berries tumbled through my fingers as I picked them, and I had to abandon the mission.
Occasionally I heard the crack of a rifle across the valley or was greeted by a passing hiker. But mostly I was alone on the moors for hours. The wind in my hair, the view of the hills unbroken for miles—it was almost like being at sea. I returned home to Kuan Yin cheered by the time in the sunshine and fresh air and satisfied with the reward for my efforts.
That evening, I cleaned and washed the berries thoroughly in fresh water. The richness of partridgeberries comes from their dense fruit and their tartness. Making jam is the most popular way of preserving partridgeberries in Newfoundland. (If you don’t have access to partridgeberries, cranberries are a good substitute.) I used less sugar than a local recipe called for, so my mixture wasn’t as sweet and therefore didn’t set like jam. However, this is the perfect complement to pancakes, yogurt, and vanilla ice cream. Every time I treat myself, the partridgeberries remind me of those glorious days when life is as rich as it can possibly get.
Berwick’s Berry Preserves
5 cups fresh partridgeberries (or cranberries)
1 cup water (add a bit more if needed to prevent scorching)
3 cups sugar
1 2-ounce packet of pectin
Clean and rinse the berries. Put berries and water in a large cooking pot. Bring to a boil and simmer until soft, about 15 minutes. Use a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon to slightly crush the berries. Stir in sugar and keep stirring until completely dissolved. Sprinkle in pectin and stir until dissolved. Bring to a brief boil, turn off heat, and immediately ladle into sterilized Mason jars. Twist on lids and leave to cool. Check that lids have “popped” to seal, or use any sterilized jars and keep refrigerated. (For a thicker jam, use 5 cups of sugar and 4 ounces of pectin). Caution: Partridgeberry (and cranberry) juice stains permanently, so be careful. Yields about eight cups.