The Norwegian cuisine
Description, criticism and raving.
I wasn’t sure what I expected of the Norwegian cuisine as I moved to Norway from the south of Sweden. I think most people combines Norway with skiing, fjords, Vikings and fish. They believe people here only eat fish, fish, and fish. This illusion sounded really good to me, being a person who love to eat fish and shellfish. One could see how I have landed in a dream world here in Bergen with lots of fishermen, “fiske torvet” and such a great selection of animals under the surface of the water, that I wonder if even God can keep track of them all.
What is Norwegian food?
As heartbreaking as it was, I still understood that the people of Norway doesn’t only eat fish. Then what do they eat? To be honest I find it a bit hard to define the Norwegian cuisine in the same way we can talk about a French or Japanese cuisine. What can be seen as typical Norwegian food? Is it lamb, salmon, potatoes or the brown goat cheese?
I have read about a study they did here in Norway, where the responders were asked which dish they thought of first as typical Norwegian. Little more than half replied meatcakes, others thought of lamb and cabbage stew and only 23 percent replied cod, that indeed is a fish. So, is this the food most eaten in the country? No, not at all. Apparently the two dishes generally served and eaten here are frozen Pizza and Taco!!!
I see this as yet another sad proof for the fast food syndrome. What ever happened to gather and cook food together, enjoy the process of actually making the dinner there in your kitchen. Of course this isn’t just a phenomen here in Norway, but in many countries of the world. People eat what they can find in their grocery store's freezer instead of cooking something yourself, from fresh products.
I believe it is a very important value to use each season’s fresh product. The people of Norway has a natural talent to do so and I find myself enjoying it more since I moved here. Cherishing the early vegetables of the spring, the sweet summer flavours from berries or harvesting the lovely tastes of the fall. It makes you appreciate the season you are in to a greater level. Here in Norway it is of course a problem to get fresh food all year around, if only using Norway’s own sources. Due to the long winter, the history behind the food culture is mostly based on food that can be preserved. Fresh food only began appearing on dinner tables in the 1700 century.
For me it is very important to have fresh vegetables and fruit in my everyday life. Many visitors in the past history have told of encounters with the lack of vegetables. A Frenchman describing Norway wrote, "It is a dreary country. There is nothing to eat. Believe me, sir, in the whole of Bergen there is not a trace of vegetables or fresh meat, no fruit, no pears, no plums!"
Depending on if it is in the south or north, Norway has a growing season of only 100-190 days a year. It is very obvious that Norway’s nature and climate gives more than merely a stunning image, they are the very source from which the culinary traditions have evolved. For this very reason the most common vegetables here are the ones that can withstand storage, like carrots, potatoes and cabbage. I love carrots, but I do think it gets a bit dreary in the long run. I find myself missing fresh roccula salad, a crisp aubergine or a lovely sweet melon.
Of course you can in these days find the more “exotic” products in the stores, unfortunately they are expensive and sometimes not of great quality. Which is a bit of a mystery to me. I don’t understand how it can be any harder or more expensive to ship the vegetables to bergen than south sweden. The distance isn’t that much greater. It makes me think that the distance isn’t the real dilemma. The problem comes down to the fear and the regulation of importing products from other countries than Norway. The government runs a monopolising policy, where the open market and free competition in between brands doesn’t exist. To put Norway’s own products first can in many cases be good, yet to exclude others leads to higher prices and a less extended selection in the shelves.
For me Norway’s lame brand selection come most clear as I want to buy yoghurt. Here in Bergen I can find two brands of yoghurt in the dairy cooler: TINE and Yoplait. In most other countries I have been to, the yoghurt selection is one big bazaar of flavours, brands, sizes, different levels of fat and consistence. As you can tell I am a yoghurt lover. I prefer to buy my yoghurt in larger containers (as the one you buy milk in), where the consistence usually is less creamy. In Bergen the large yoghurt containers are limited to three flavours from TINE. To try a new flavour from day to day is one of my joys at the breakfast table. I want to be able to find flavours as apple-cinnamon, Christmas cookie or rhubarb-vanilla. Here I only find a limited selection of flavours, mostly in small containers and many of them with a fat level that is too high for my lactose sensitive stomach. To put it mildly. This whole issue of having a monopolising politic with no brand competition, it makes shopping grocery in Norway a bit boring!
To compensate the poor selection on the shelves, natures own sources are much greater. Comparing with my home country, I have discovered that Norwegians embrace the joy of the seasonal food from the nature to a greater extend. Here you immediately acknowledge which fruit or berry that are in season, which came very clear to me after driving through the province of Hardanger this summer and seeing about 2000 signs saying “Buy Cherries”. I love how Norwegians really make use out of the fresh raspberries, plums, apples and chanterelles. The natures seasonal gifts don’t just pass by unnoticed, as it does where I am from. Even if it sometimes implies hard work, harvesting from the nature makes the products taste so much better. Perhaps it is the slow ripening in light Norwegian summer nights that gives the berries and fruit an extraordinary aroma and sweetness. Or maybe the fact that it brings so much more joy to gather your own blueberry for your breakfast pancakes, instead of buying them in the store, packed and frozen.
Cooking should be fun, something you do together. I don’t think food should be fussed with too much. I am not saying go out and buy a frozen pizza to put in the microwave, but you don’t have to spend hours and hours doing a steak in the oven either. Make a salad with new boiled shrimps, a spicy wok or barbecue a new caught fish with some herbs and potatoes. For me food from Norway stand for great quality. It has lovely flavours from the sea, the forest or the mountains. The animals that graze the mountain slope’s green grass provide the meat with a unique aroma. If you want to leave in these natural flavours of the raw materials, cook it just rare. Never over-cook the food. Sometimes some salt, pepper and fresh herbs is the absolute best way to give some extra flavour.
The typical Norwegian lunch package
For me the most important thing is variation and trying new flavours and dishes. This behaviour seems to be a bit unknown for some people in Sweden and to an even greater extend in Norway. I see too little variation on dishes, flavours and spices. Not so much what you can find in the stores, more what people choose to buy and eat. Lets take cheese as an example. From what I can see many people here eat brown goat cheese or those packages of already carved, totally tasteless yellow cheese. It must be close to a criminal act for a cheese expert. Why not buy a creamy Brie, a Gorgonzola or Black Sarah. Okay, so I am brought up with extremely tasteful cheese from Denmark, who’s smell almost makes me pass out. However there has to be a middle way in between these too. Does the people of Norway have sensitive gums or is it perhaps a fear for the unknown? The latter is the most probable.
Norwegian’s have a lot of things in their country they should be really proud of and using products from the home country is all very good. Nevertheless the act of occasionally trying something new and exciting from another country, don’t turn you into a none-nationalist. For me, variation and trying new things is one of the great perks of life. Which makes it hard for me to understand why some people in Norway have this scepticism of actually bringing something new into their lunch boxes.
Taking a packed lunch to school or work is quite a widespread Norwegian habit. In Sweden school children get cooked food in school and I have always presumed it was the same way in Norway. It actually came as quite a surprise to me and has resulted in a few discussions about the value of eating two cooked meals a day. A child that is growing and have to concentrate a whole day in school, shouldn’t just eat a sandwich for lunch.
The children eat bread for breakfast, bread for lunch and I am scared that some of them don’t even get a home cooked meal in the evening. I am not saying that the food in the Swedish schools is of top quality (because it is not), but it does offer an alternating food source. A cooked meal is more filling than a sandwich, it also gives better nutrition and more energy. Even if you don’t have the resources of actually serving food in school, I don’t understand why the food packages have to contain such a lack of variation. Why just sandwiches? Why not a pasta salad with lots of vegetables, together with a piece of fresh bread and a couple of fruits. According to a resent study, Norway withholds the last place in Europe of eating enough fruit, which doesn’t really surprise me.
My criticism isn’t just based on the food in school. Also what some people bring for work or to a picnic. Why these neatly folded brown paper packages, sliced brown rye bread, a layer of butter and the brown goat cheese or mutton-sausage. Why all so brown and monotonous? Where are the vegetables and fruits? Most importantly, why not trying something new for a change. A lovely focaccia bread, with some deliciously fresh mozzarella, a touch of pesto, vegetables and perhaps some Norwegian smoked salmon. Much more colourful, more tasteful and above all more fun. I think the people from Norway is a fun and charming people, but one wouldn’t think so looking at their lunch packages.
Traditional Norwegian food.
I think Norway, more than other countries, is really good at withholding their culinary traditions and what is true genuine Norwegian. Perhaps it springs from peoples strong nationalistic feeling that has evolved due to the country’s short independence. Most likely it is also a reaction to the standardised fast foods tendency, that makes people return to long-standing Norwegian food traditions. They bring out their grandparent's recipe books, cooking a number of genuine dishes, such as lutefisk, rømmegrøt and salted lamb ribs.
I am not the best person to rave about the traditional heavy home-cooked food, since I am not too fond of it. I don’t eat much meat, I love fruit and vegetables, I like food that is spicy, I don’t like butter and my lactose sensitive stomach can’t handle too fat milk or cream. If looking past my preference, Norwegian traditional food does fall to many peoples liking. Even I have found numerous dishes that are really delicious, using it perhaps a bit more as the new generation of creative Norwegian chefs.
Norwegians believe they produces the best milk in the world, which might be true since they consume about 150 litres per person a year. Milk has for a long time played an important role in Norwegian cooking. It is also used to make butter, which is another prominent ingredient of the home cooked meal. Back in history butter had such high status that it was actually placed on the table as a decoration at weddings, moulded into large pyramidal sculptures. From milk we also get cheese. In Norway they produces all kinds of cheese, many of them with a very mild flavour. The most famous Norwegian cheese is the brown goat's cheese (geitost), which is one of the most distinctive Norwegian sandwich toppings. I don’t think geitost tastes like cheese, with its soft aroma from caramel. Either way, it is a must to try if you visit the country.
One important dish in Norway is grøt, in other words porridge. In Sweden we eat grøt for breakfast or dessert, usually served with different types of jams or fruit-sauce. This is a habit Norwegian people consider a bit strange, since you in Norway eat it with butter, sugar and cinnamon. I think grøt has played a more important role in Norway than it has in Sweden, some even say grøt made Norway what it is today. Hot grøt on Saturday afternoons for a Norwegian family is as common as a hamburger for Americans.
Grøt is also used at special occasions as Christmas or weddings. Then you serve rømmegrøt, a sweet, filling sour cream porridge that also is a traditional dish of Norwegian summertime lunches.
Just as the other Scandinavian countries, Norway bakes a lot of very tasteful bread. More so, than the rest of the Nordic countries, major parts of the Norwegian daily food source consist from bread. At the bakery you will find a lot of dark rye and corn bread.
To me Flatbread is Norway’s national bread. It is a crispy, thin bread and is a common feature of many meals in the country. I love it with any kind of smoked fish and some vegetables. Another typical Norwegian bread is Lefse, which is more like a cake. A soft thin bread, with a sweet butter filling.
“A dear child has many names” is a well known saying. This is very true about Norwegian potato balls: Raspeballer, Kumle, Klubb, Kumpe, Ball, Fatklubb, Raspekaker, are just some of the names. It is basically the same; boiled potato balls. They have the size of a large egg , grey in colour and a structure I best can describe as firm porridge. Not my favourite dish, but people here seems to be crazy about them.
In restaurants and lunch canteens they usually serve potato balls each week on a certain day. You eat it with meat, different types of sausages, carrots and sometimes stew. The very peak of the heavy home cooked cuisine.
Many people travelling to Norway, become none-meat eaters either they want it or not. Meat is so expensive. The Norwegian meat is considered to be of great quality and therefor most people here don’t like to import it from other countries. Today one of the most common meat dishes is meatcakes, which is Norway’s answer to hamburgers.
Game has always been a central ingredient in Norwegian cooking and now I think it is used more than ever. Game is a clear trend among the Norwegian chefs. Elk dominates in most inland areas, while reindeer is the speciality in the north. The trademark for Norwegian meat is nevertheless mutton.
Back in history fresh meat was scarce and a luxury product. Due to the long winter, animals could only be put out to pasture for a few short summer months. Norwegians were therefore dependent on dried, smoked, salted and pickled meat. There are many different types to choose from. Fenalår is cured leg of mutton and seen as a unique national speciality. Fresh lamb is now popular for both roasts and other dishes. In earlier days, the finest meat was reserved for the wealthier families, while fresh mutton for the rest of the population consisted of the cheapest parts from the autumn slaughter. This meat was simmered with cabbage and whole peppercorns to make what is now considered a national dish, fårikål. Another dish is salted, and sometimes smoked, lamb ribs called pinnekjøtt. Originally it was a speciality from Western Norway, however later served all over the country, especially for Christmas.
Almost every visitor, me more than others, raves about Norwegian fish, such as fresh trout, cod or salmon. Words can’t do justice for how much I love it. Fresh fish is prepared in a variety of ways, the most important goal seems to be to eat it as fresh as possible. Salmon, in all forms, is a major trademark for Norway. The most common is the delicious smoked salmon, however be sure to try gravlaks, where the salmon is marinated raw and served with a honey mustard sauce. Salmon and cod are also used to make fishcakes or fishpudding. To fry fishcakes with some salt and pepper, served with bread and some vegetables is what should be launched on the market as tasteful, healthy fast food. Another typical fish dish from Norway is herring and sardines, I would say that Norwegians practically invented them. You find plenty of herring and sardines in the Norwegian cuisine, especially on breakfast buffets.
On the northernmost coast of Norway, cod has been hung on poles and dried in the wind without salt for more than a thousand years, they call this fish “stockfish”. Through history it has been sold to other European countries in order to bring home wine, wheat and honey. Therefor it wasn’t only up here in Norway the stockfish became well known. A French cookbook from 1393 writes how the stockfish should be eaten with mustard or dipped in butter. However, the fish must first be pounded with a wooden hammer and then soaked in water for quite some time.
If you add wood ash lye to the water, it make the fish particularly soft and flavourful. Then you will get another type of dish called lutefisk (lye fish). Lutefisk is a speciality both here in Norway and in Sweden. In Sweden we eat it for Christmas served with potatoes and a mustered sauce. I am not exhilarating if I say that lutefisk with mustered sauce is my favourite dish. When I was younger, other children said their favourite food was pizza or pasta, while I replied without any doubt: lutefisk! Here in Norway you serve lutefisk with creamed peas, potatoes and bacon.
Similarities and Differences.
It isn’t just differences I see in between my birth country and my new home country. There are many similarities too. It is a well known fact that we never had a very good coffee culture in Scandinavia. In many places they still don’t know how to serve a proper cup of coffee, which is a scary thought when both Norway and Sweden are two major coffee-drinking nations. The coffee sipping hasn’t always existed here though. Up until the last century 90 percent of the Norwegian population lived in rural areas, where the everyday beverage was blande, a mixture of water and sour whey. I have never tried it, but it can’t be much worse than the terrible coffee you are served in some of the cafes in Scandinavia.
In the larger cities, in both Sweden and Norway, the coffee culture has reach a higher standard as more coffee bars open up. There you can find everything from espresso, cappuccino, latte macchiato or ice coffee. The problems emerge when you leave the city for smaller villages, diners or road cafes. One would think that the name “cafe” would indicate the ability to serve coffee. I can’t for the world of me call some of the hot black liquid, served in those places, for coffee. To leave coffee in a pot for heating for several hours, makes it sour and takes away the lovely aroma and flavour that makes me drink it in the first place. If the name says “cafe” on the door, they should at least have the decency to serve a proper cup of coffee and also offer the different types that people crave these days. If I enter a cafe, I want to be able to order my latte macchiato, without getting a look that I am alien just arriving from mars.
Wine and Liquor.
If it sometimes is hard to get a good cup of coffee, getting a bottle of wine without felling ripped off, is an ever harder task. As you can gather it is difficult to cultivate wine grapes this far north, so wine must be imported. Just as in Sweden, Norway puts a lot of tax on alcohol, to stop us from drinking too much. Right or wrong? Who knows. It makes it much more expensive to enjoy a good glass of red wine in a restaurant a Friday night. It is also rather tedious if you have done something as pleasant as a wine trip in Mosel and then only be allowed to bring back three bottles of wine per person through custom. The side effects to the high prices are also smuggling and people producing liquor them selves.
Liquor has been imported to Norway from Europe starting in the 1500s. Most people does pay the expensive prices and enjoy a small “snaps” at the dinner table. Here in Norway they produces Akevitt. It's taken from the latin words “Aqua Vitae”, which means "water of life." After tasting it, you begin to have a slightly ugly feeling that the name is a joke. Though, to me most liquor tastes as something coming from a car, so I shouldn’t be the one who judge. Akevitt is distilled from a fermented potato or grain mash, flavoured with caraway seeds. Norway is most famous for its Linie Aquavit, so called because it is shipped to Australia and back (across the Equator, or the "Line") in oak containers to produce mellow flavour.
One of the biggest differences in between Sweden and Norway, is also the one I notice and appreciate the most. The ability to get fresh fish often without having to pay a horrible amount of money for it. To stroll down to the shore in the afternoon to fish something for dinner, with a high possibility of actually catching something, is a dream I always had. The fishing water around where I come from is almost drained. To catch a cod would in these days be as surprising as catching a shark.
Here you literary see the fish dancing on the surface of the water, hundreds of mackerels chasing smaller fish up on shore. An interaction of thousands of colours and movements, almost creating an illusion of a hologram. You don’t need to swing your fishing pole to be able to enjoy some new caught fish.
Fresh fish and shellfish glistens on carts in the market squares, just hauled from the sea and fjords. For me it is a pure joy to visit “Fiske torvet” (fish market) here in Bergen. It is a complete culinary experience, that makes me want turn into “Jamie the Chef” and buy fresh fish and shell fish everyday and cook dinners for my friends. At the market you can find everything from lobsters, new boiled crab, anglerfish or whale, all brought up from the underwater world to clear daylight. Many of them unattractive in appearance, nevertheless with an outstanding taste. Unfortunately it is rather expensive to buy these luxurious treasures from the sea, otherwise I would indeed have turned into this illusion of people in Norway only eating fish, fish and fish.