Friday, August 31, 2018

The Food of Norway


Introduction

My family took a trip to Norway recently, during which we ate like kings, for the most part. Given my readers’ obvious appetite for the topic (The Food of London and The Food of Scotland being popular posts), I will share with you what I discovered in Norway.

But first, a caveat: I’m not going to pretend I could give an overall account of how good Norwegian food is, or try to compare it to what I eat in the Bay Area. I was a clueless tourist over there, and judging Norwegian food by the random restaurants I blindly stumbled into would be no fairer than judging San Francisco food by the humdrum fare you get along Fisherman’s Wharf.

Local specialties

I wouldn’t say Norway is a world leader when it comes to cuisine. I just searched Yelp for the best Norwegian restaurants in San Francisco, and it came back with just ten results: Pläj, a Scandinavian place, at #1; Nordic House (a deli) at #2; and a bunch of false positives. The #3 place is classified as “American (new),” #4 and #5 are German, and #6—a place called Dulce Amore—is “modern European.” On to #7 and #8, more delis, and when I got to #9, Safeway (yes, the grocery store), I had to laugh. (By contrast, searching Yelp for top Italian restaurants in San Francisco produced a list of 363 places.)

Still, we did eat some things on vacation that have got to be authentically Norwegian. For example, these meatballs (which are perhaps more iconically Swedish, but still):


And how were they? Damn good! Part of that was the ambience, though … check this place out.


I don’t know what that thing is sticking out of my kid’s mouth. It doesn’t look like a utensil. I hope she didn’t sneak a cigarette. Anyway, I’d definitely eat those meatballs again, but I wouldn’t necessarily take a trip of any length (even just to Pläj) to eat them again.

The next thing that I would say was typically Norwegian was the salmon. More than half of all the salmon eaten in the world comes from Norway. Alas, I don’t have a photo of the best salmon we had there, because I had the stomach flu during that meal and was devoting 100% of my attention toward not projectile-vomiting all over my family across the table. The idea of whipping out my camera never occurred to me (though I suppose I could have captured some breathtaking footage). Anyway, this was at a high-end buffet at a fancy hotel (dinner for three of us was over $140; the fourth family member also had the flu and skipped the meal). So, how was that salmon? My wife said it was the best she’d ever had. I tasted it and thought it was very good, but not as good as what I’d enjoyed in Mallaig, Scotland. (Full disclosure: I did not have the stomach flu in Mallaig.)

Here’s a photo of a nice salmon sandwich I had at the same groovy place pictured above. 


It was really good. But did it stand out over all the other salmon I’ve ever had? Well, not necessarily. It’s not like my eyes rolled back in my head. I guess it doesn’t help that everything in Norway is grotesquely expensive. That sandwich above was around $20. The going rate for a burger is around $25. For that kind of money, the food ought to make me cry (like a NYC bagel recently did). By the way, I have more to say about Norwegian salmon but have decided make that into a future post so we don’t lose steam here.

So here is a bona fide local classic: Bergen fish soup.


My wife had read about this amenity before we went on our trip. It really was something else. We had to restrain ourselves from fighting over it. That white stuff? Cream—but not over-the-top like with New England clam chowder. The green stuff? Parsley oil. There wasn’t a ton of fish in this soup (not like with these cioppinos you get that could be stretched to feed a small village), but the flavor was off the chain. It’s also noteworthy that this was in the touristy restaurant atop Mount Ulriken that, had it been in the U.S., would necessarily have been awful and overpriced (as opposed to just overpriced).

If you hadn’t heard of Bergen, there’s an even more obscure place that lays claim to its own soup: the tiny island of Fedje (pronounced FAY-yeh). My wife asked, at Kafé Losen, if the “fiskesuppe” on the menu was Bergen fish soup; the proprietor seemed almost offended. “No, it’s local recipe!” she assured us. Here it is:


It was really good, too. (I should have included something in the photo for scale, though … that bowl was small, maybe five inches in diameter, for $12. Fortunately this was near the end of our trip and I was already numb.)

So what else is classically Norwegian? Well, they’re known for their heart-shaped waffles. You’ve probably even heard these mentioned in the Nirvana song:

She eyes me like a fiskesuppe when I am blue
I’ve been cooked inside a heart-shaped iron, too
I’ve been topped with lingonberry and sour cream
I wish I could eat your price tag when you scream

(Note: no, Nirvana did not really sing about waffles. Ever.)

Here is a Norwegian waffle (four conjoined hearts, which should have been separated IMHO):


How was it? The earth did not move for me. It was not griddled (ironed?) to order … just pulled from a big flabby stack. Still, the aforementioned condiments would be an asset to any waffle. (Full disclosure: no waffle can ever please me, after my mom’s amazing sourdough waffles made with her ancient waffle iron that was crafted, it seemed, of sterling silver. This iron did such a great job, my brother’s family continued to use it for years after it began catching fire due to an electrical problem.)

So, fancy restaurant meals aside, what do Norwegians typically eat? Here’s a good cross section of what was on offer daily for breakfast at the hostel we stayed at in Bergen:


What are we looking at? I’ll start with the sandwich and move clockwise. That cheese isn’t exactly Swiss but it isn’t exactly not. We saw it everywhere. Also ubiquitous was a brown cheese called mysost (“whey cheese”) that is more quintessentially Norwegian. It looked kind of gross, though, and my daughter who tried it assured me it was, so I never partook. (Hey man, don’t judge. You try suffering for days with the stomach flu in a foreign land and see how adventurous you are.)

Atop the cheese is a thin, salami-esque slice of sheep sausage, and a squeeze of caviar, sort of. They call it kaviar, and it’s smoked cod roe. I left it un-spread for the photo but would spread it across the bread normally (in increasing quantities as I got used to it). The kaviar was really quite tasty. I was disappointed to learn that the Bergen TSA considers it a liquid … they confiscated the half dozen tubes we purchased to bring home to friends. Bastards.


To build back my strength after that flu, I tended to eat three or four of these sandwiches every morning, in addition to the other stuff. Next to the sandwich is some pâté (animal unknown); mackerel in tomato sauce; potato salad (quite mayonnaise-y but mercifully non-sweet); pickled herring; and curried herring. Sometimes I had a bowl of cereal as well. None of it was delicious but it was serviceable and came free with our lodging.

Booze

I’m just going to say it: for those who love to drink, Norway is bound to be a bit disappointing. Wine and spirits must be purchased at a Vinmonopolet (“wine monopoly”), of which there are only 315 in the whole country (as compared to almost 14,000 liquor stores in California, where we can also buy pretty much any booze we want in our grocery stores, even vodka). I never did see a Vinmonopolet during my trip (though I wasn’t exactly scouring the place).

You can buy beer in Norwegian grocery stores, but only a watered-down version with no more than 4.7% ABV. Restaurants occasionally have stronger beer, but mostly they serve the weak beer that’s produced for the Norwegian market (such as the Hansa shown in the restaurant photo above), for around $9 US. A 500 ml bottle will cost you $5 at the grocery store. The logo on this beer can pretty much captures Norway’s attitude toward beer drinkers:


(In the background above is the hotel room art I pondered for hours on end, deliriously, during the worst phase of my stomach flu. Did it seem eerily profound to me that the beer and the art both featured mermaids? Yes ... in my fevered state, it truly did. Did I labor mentally over the incongruity of the art obviously featuring a mermaid, but one with normal feet instead of fins? Yes, that too. Is it a good idea to drink beer when you have the flu? Well, during vacation ... yes again.)

There are microbreweries in Norway, but they also tend to make only the weak beer so they don’t have a hard time selling it due to the usurious taxes applied to stronger stuff. I learned this from a tour guide in Fedje, who mentioned that Norwegians will buy beer in Germany where it’s much cheaper and stronger, but they’re only allowed to bring back a certain amount, and the government will actually spot-check at the border to make sure nobody cheats. Man! What a buzzkill! It’s downright un-American!

Well, imagine my delight when I discovered a boozing loophole: a vending machine at the hostel was selling 500 ml Hansa beers for only 20 NOK (about $2.40 US). Score! I bought a couple cans:


Little did I know, “Lettøl” (which I hadn’t noticed at first) means light beer. Very light. As in, 2.4% ABV. This is how they keep underage kids (which in Norway means under 18) from exploiting the vending machine loophole. If some dumb kid were to consume the 4 or 5 of these it would take to get even slightly drunk, he would be too bloated to escape the authorities. His sprint would be reduced to a frantic waddle, his belly stretched tight as a drum.

I did get a stronger drink at the Magic Ice Bar, a very interesting place where the bar, all the furniture, and even the glasses are made of ice. The drink was some frou-frou cranberry thing, fairly tasty and reasonably strong but not exactly a Super Big Gulp. Note the standard issue parka and gloves in the background … if they’d had any Hansa beer in that place, it would have frozen solid.


Highlights

In addition to the groovy restaurant with the meatballs, the local fish soup, and the great salmon, we had some other delicious fare during our trip. One of the best restaurants we went to was the place in Fedje, Kafé Losen. This was literally the only restaurant open on the entire island (and would close for the season a week after we ate there). They had us by the balls and could have served us anything at any price, but both the proprietor and her husband seemed to take great pride in their food, checking in with us during each course and beaming at the praise. Check out this burger:


They don’t make their own buns, but a nearby bakery does. That thin meat, which the menu merely called bacon, was actually prosciutto di Parma. Below that you’re looking at a nice slab of brie. The beef was delicious and probably grass-fed (to be honest, I didn’t dare ask because I really felt like a burger and didn’t want to have to change my order on principle if it had been grain-fed).

Speaking of baked goods, we had really good bread at several places in Norway. They know what they are doing.

Kafé Losen also served this goat cheese salad:


Look at that disk of goat cheese. It’s like an inch thick. Also some caramelized onions, nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and the whole thing was perfectly dressed.

It’s time to put on a bib. I am drooling down the front of my shirt. Okay, remember that Bergen fish soup I mentioned, at the Mount Ulriken restaurant? At the same place I had this lamb sausage with associated goodies:


The sausage itself was pretty yum, and all the accouterments were surprisingly tasty (as opposed to the rote garnish & sides you so often get).

The final highlight is this salmon pasta:


I wished that thing in the background had been a big hunk of salmon, but it wasn’t—it was a superfluous piece of focaccia. But the pasta itself was really good—the salmon flavor really came through (and made me wish this was my entrée, but it wasn’t—it was my daughter’s and I had to fight the impulse to appropriate it).

To be continued…

Come back next week for “Food of Norway Part II,” in which I’ll share Cheap Eats; Fails; Things We Didn’t Eat; Weirdness; and Adventures in Norwegian World Cuisine.

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