From July to October, berries are everywhere. Instagram feeds are full of colourful photos of the results of days spent berry picking in the forest. Restaurant chefs propose new delicacies bursting with the flavours of bilberries, cloudberries and buckthorn berries. Wild berries are healthy, they taste wonderful and they are free for everyone to pick. Berries are also fascinating raw materials for innovations.
Science has proven the health benefits of berries. An interesting fact is that the wild berries of the north are true superfood.
Laura Jaakola, professor in plant biology at the University of Tromsø in Norway, has done extensive research on the ability of plants to produce health effects. She has also studied how climate affects the production and quality of berries.
All berries are healthy, but different berries have different characteristics. We have paid special attention on bilberries and their bioactive compounds”, she explains.
“In bilberries there are various compounds of flavonoids called anthocyanin. They are the ones that provide the blue colour of the berries. Our studies show that in the north the concentrations of anthocyanin in the bilberries are higher. Longer hours of sunlight increase the amount of anthocyanins. The cool temperatures also have a positive effect on one anthocyanin called delphinidin.”
Laura Jaakola notes that even genetic adaptation plays a role.
“For some reason that we do not yet fully understand, the berries in the north produce more of these compounds that have health benefits.”
The berry businesses in Lapland are grateful for the research results that prove the quality of berries grown in the north. Laura Jaakola points out that wild berries have a great potential for commercial use and product development.
“Berries are a traditional raw material. And better still, they are pure and they taste great.”
Berry juices are familiar Finnish drinks, but it took an American couple to show that it is possible to make quality wine with Finnish berries.
"In the U.S. I made wine as a hobby. When we moved to Finland I discovered that I could not get grapes here, so with my wife we started experimenting with local ingredients. We were surprised to learn that Finland had these amazing fruit, berries", winemaker David Cohen explains.
There was not a lot of reliable information on berry wine making available, so trial and error was the method of choice. The early experiments were not always successful.
"Berries are not like grapes, and every berry is different. In some respects, berry wine is just like grape wine though – the difference between good and excellent wine ultimately depends on the quality of the raw material. When we realized just how good Finnish berries are, we had to show it to the world."
David Cohen and his wife Paola Guerrero de Cohen continued their berry wine experiments, earned their Wine Production Certifications and founded Finnviini. They have been producing wine commercially since 2014.
"We have very high standards about what is good enough to sell. We wanted to prove that wines from berries can be wonderful, that they can be world-class."
Finnviini gets their raw material from a number of companies in Northern Finland who buy the berries from berry pickers. David Cohen believes that berries grown in an Arctic climate are one of the keys to Finnviini's success.
"Colder climates give more concentrated flavours. The highest quality grape wines are grown in regions where the grapes can barely survive. I think berries are the same, you get better quality further north."
In just a few years, Finnviini has succeeded in showing that it is possible to produce excellent wines with berries as their wines have collected several international awards from Melbourne to Berlin and California. This spring, Vaapukka raspberry wine became the first berry wine to win a trophy in Paris.
The awarded Finnviini wines are sweet but balanced dessert wines. Cloudberry wine Valokki is a clear favourite among Finnish tasters. David Cohen says that he is personally most proud of bilberry wine Sametti.
"The Finnish wild blueberries have so much more flavour than cultivated blueberries, but it is hard to preserve that flavour in wine. We worked hard to achieve it."
With his background in engineering, David Cohen believes that research and development would help add value to the Finnish berry industry.
"It took us many years to get to the point where we knew good ways to process berries, because there wasn't enough academic research to draw upon. It only worked for us because we were not initially thinking of commercial potential. That wouldn't work for established companies who are trying to turn the berries into added value products."
"Most of the berries are just exported as raw material. The Chinese then turn them into berry powders and supplements. Why not do the processing and figure out new uses for this unique natural resource in Finland?"
Photo: Arctic Superfoods.
One innovator who is doing just that is Jari Kurtti, self-ordained Flavour Master and the CEO of Arctic Superfoods, a family business that produces snack bars made of Finnish berries and wild herbs.
“I wanted to develop the brand of Lapland’s wild berries and herbs and create a modern consumer product that could be easily available anywhere”, Jari Kurtti says. His background as a chef and his hands-on knowledge of natural raw materials prepared him for the new career as an entrepreneur.
“We launched our product, the Arctic Superfoods snack bar in August 2016. The past year has been full of hard work, but we are excited about what lays ahead.”
The snack market is competitive. In order to succeed, you have to be able to offer something special. That is exactly what Arctic Superfoods decided to do. The delicious snack bars are made with solely Finnish natural ingredients.
“The research and development has been intense. It took time and an enormous amount of work to find the right ingredients and combine them into snack bars so that the nutritional values are just right. We tested dried potatoes as well as parsnip, beetroot and many other root vegetables before we found our winning combinations.”
“Up here in the north, we do not have the nuts, dates and apricots our competitors use. We worked hard to produce a similar mouthfeel with the things the Finnish nature has to offer. I am proud of the way we were able to develop the perfect texture with crushed and roasted flax seeds”, Jari Kurtti explains.
“Sweet local carrots further improve the consistency. We temper the unique aromas of nettle, spruce sprout, and birch leaf with pure gluten free oats. Sea buckthorn, lingonberry, cranberry and wild blueberry bring their taste, colour and vitamins. Delicious Finnish honey is the only sweetener we use”, the proud culinarian describes.
Arctic Superfoods sources their wild herbs from around the Arctic Circle. Most of the berries come from the Koillismaa region in North-eastern Finland. Trusted providers of raw materials are especially important for a small company that cannot compromise on quality.
“It is hard work to enter the market with a totally new product. Our snack bars are the first energy bars made of only Finnish ingredients. The feedback has been great and it encourages us to plan new things”, Jari Kurtti says.