The Magically Mysterious Haskap Berry

This article ran in CityPalate Magazine.

The Magically Mysterious Haskap Berry

 “Have you seen any of these?” Like a culinary detective hunting an elusive suspect I flash a photo to a clerk at the market.

“Sorry, no.” I try again next door.

“I’m looking for these. Know who’s got any?”

“Can’t help you.”

I get similar reactions from people all over the market until I run out of fruit stands. Yes, fruit stands.  I’m looking for a berry and though it’s said to be one of the most prolific in Alberta and western Canada, I’m met with inquisitive looks every time I ask about it. 

The haskap berry is poised to become the next superfruit, depending on what you read.  It’s also got a reputation or a flavour like nothing you’ve ever tasted; as if a raspberry, a blueberry and some mysterious tropical fruit all got together and threw a summer backyard party in your mouth.

Haskap berries are good-sized fruit that resembles a larger and more elliptical blueberry. It has the same mottled violet-cobalt skin you’d find on the outside of a blueberry, but it can grow up to 4 centimetres long.

After hearing tales of the haskap berry in culinary circles, I wanted to try it for myself. But getting my hands on haskaps in Calgary was going to prove much more challenging than I thought.

You can thank a plant scientist in Saskatchewan for introducing haskap berries to most of North America.  Bob Bors works for the University of Saskatchewan in the Plant Sciences Department, and many people in this trade refer to him as the Grandfather of Haskap. A fruit breeder by profession, he would make his mark on the world by being strategic when it came to choosing his plant specialization. Wanting to stand out from the crowd, he elected not to focus on more common berries, but to find something unique and unusual; haskaps.

“They actually grow in Canada north of where most of our cities are,” says Bors. “They’re out there in Alberta, they’re around Fort McMurray and they’re up in north of Prince Albert in Saskatchewan; they’re in the boreal forest. I know there’s been maybe two to three million plants sold.  We’re trying it all across the country.”

Haskap berries have their origins in Japan and Russia. Haskap is actually the Japanese name for ‘Lonicera caerulea’ also known as ‘blue honeysuckle’, or ‘honeyberry’. It loves cold winters and can grow quickly in shorter summers, making it ideally suited for the Canadian prairies. Gardeners both home-based and commercial have been buying up the plants.

Despite that, finding a basket of these unusual berries is an exercise in perseverance.

Hunting them in the winter is pointless — you’d need to find them frozen, and that’s next to impossible in Calgary as I couldn’t find anyone that stocks them. But even come summer time, getting fresh berries is tough.

I ask the expert what gives.

It’s because they’re brand new,” muses Bors. “The people that have had them long enough to make berries (commercial producers) — there’s only a few of them. There’s probably been two and a half or three million plants sold in Canada over the last decade, but almost all of that is just in the last three or four years.”

Determined to somehow sample haskap’s flavour, I reach out to growers in Canada and the USA and hear almost nothing back. Like the berry, the growers keep a low profile. I finally connect with Bernis Invgaldson who runs the website and has a haskap farm in Minnesota. I ask her what a haskap tastes like.

“I call it a mystery berry,” laughs Invgaldson, “If you take all your favourite fruits and put them in the blender and now comes this mystery berry flavour – you cannot quite put your finger on it.”

These elusive berries are also meant to be good for you. Haskap berries are said to be high in Vitamin C and Vitamin A, as well as high in fibre and potassium. They’re also packed with anti-oxidants and some of the compounds in the haskap have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. One of Bors’ graduate students is currently working on a study on the health benefits of the haskap.

Despite my research and interviews, I’ve not been able to get my hands on the berries or sample their enigmatic flavour.  Ingvaldson tells me about a small shop in Saskatchewan that sells haskap jams, syrups and preserves.

A week after I place an order with SaskMade Marketplace in Saskatoon, a package of bottles and jars arrives.

I force myself to wait, and gather a small group of friends and family to join me in the inaugural tasting.

I dip a spoon in a jar of Haskap Topping and pull out a syrupy sauce with big pieces of soft berry. The flavour is intense. Sweet, tart and mouth-filling. The boldness of the haskap is like nothing I’ve ever tried; it’s as if you picked the sweetest, ripest raspberries and strawberries and cooked them down to their very essence, then added mango and a hint of pineapple. It’s glorious. I dip my spoon in again.

With that jar of topping giving the first clues about what the berries themselves will taste like, and with Bors’ information that sales of the plants are up, I’m hopeful haskap berries might eventually become more plentiful in Calgary.