I dearly love the Norwegians. They are a truly wonderful people. Stoic in their acceptance of the weather of the country they are also warm and friendly to visitors. They particularly want the visitor to see the best side of Norway and Norwegian life. At the same time, the Norwegians also have a reasonably good sense of humour and the rare ability to be able to laugh at themselves (as well as the Swedes – but that is another story). I was fortunate to spend just over three years living and working in Norway, mostly in the small town of Trondheim (small town? It is the third largest city in Norway). I worked with many Norwegians and a few other foreigners. one in particular, an Englishman by the name of Nick Searle, started the whole subject of discussions about Norwegian Cuisine off with his description of Norwegian Seed Bread. To Nick I owe a debt for the number of times I have told this as well as the number of tears of laughter that have been shed as a result of these stories.
The Norwegians, like most peoples, have their special foods. These are the traditional meals that are served around particular festivals or times of the year. Generally amongst these special foods, there is a dish or two that is generally not so palatable to foreigners. All countries have them. The Koreans and their live octopus, many Asian countries with their use of dog as a meat. Those countries that eat horse and so on. Well, the Norwegians have some special dishes and as a good foreign visitor to the country, I have tried most of them (and have the certificate to prove some of them as well).
Nick’s description of Norwegian Bread
This was the description that started it all. Nick is English, I am Australian. We were both in Norway and therefore eating the same Norwegian food as everybody else. Both Nick and I had come from environments where white bread made from refined flour was the norm. Norway is one of those countries that maintains a love of the seed breads. That is, brown breads containing a lot of seed (and therefore roughage) with all the attendant effects of said roughage.The tale went something like this. Lars and Svein, two soon to be famous old Vikings are sitting around wondering what to eat. Svein says to Lars, “Lars, what have we got to eat”. Lars looks around and can see nothing other than a pile of old seeds collected last summer and sitting in the corner of the hut.
So Lars says, “there is nothing other than these old seeds we have left over in the corner there.”
Svein says, “I don’t think they are going to taste too good. How are we going to eat them? Besides, they are too hard to chew.”
Lars scratches his head, thinks a little and says, “I know, let’s bang the seeds between these two rocks, that should soften them up a little.”
So they bang the seeds between two rocks and they get a little powder and a lot of seeds left. Lars scratches his head again and says, “I know, lets mix this with a little water and that should soften everything up a bit”.
They mix the pounded seed with some water and let it sit for a bit. Svein tries the mix and notes that it is a little doughy and sticks to the mouth, and besides, it doesn’t taste all that good.
Lars then comes up with the brilliant idea of sticking the gooey mixture in the fire.
Result, Norwegian Bread.
Lutefisk – the Juletide Special Meal
It was three weeks before Christmas (or Juletide as it is known in Norway). The ladies at the office we were working in invited us out for a special Christmas dinner, consisting of Lutefisk and Aquavit. We would learn over the coming years the true meaning of the terms “special meal and Aquavit”. Well, the special dinner was Lutefisk. Lutefisk is prepared by re-hydrating a dried cod by first soaking it in potash (you may know that as caustic soda), then water, then boiling and serving. The result of this process is a semi-opaque jelly-like piece of fish. This dish is then served with flatbread, seed mustard, honey, sometimes mushy type peas and boiled potatoes. Needless to say, it is not a popular dish with the foreigners. And where did Lutefisk come from? Read on, gentle reader, and discover the origin of Lutefisk.Lars and Svein, our two intrepid Vikings stuck in the north of Norway are looking around for something to eat again. Svein says to Lars, “Lars, what have we got to eat, I haven’t eaten since Autumn. Lars looks around and notices some old dried fish in the back of the cabin.
“Well Svein”, says Lars, “we have some of that fish we dried last summer still laying there over in the corner.”
“Hmmm”, says Svein, “they look a bit mouldy. What can we do to get the mould off?”
“I know” says Lars, “let’s soak them in some caustic soda. That’ll get the mould off them for sure.”
So they soak the fish in caustic soda for a day or so and sure enough, the mould has gone. Svein does note to Lars however, “gee Lars, that has got rid of the mould but the fish are going to taste pretty awful now. What can we do to get the caustic soda off them?”
“I know, say Lars, “let’s soak them in water for a bit.” So they soak the fish in water for a day or so. Svein goes and has a smell of the fish and reports that the caustic soda smell has gone. “Lars” he says “the caustic soda smell has gone but the fish is going to taste pretty bad just as a lump of cold wet fish. What can we do?”
Lars scratches his chin for a minute and says to Svein, “I know, let’s boil the fish and see how that goes.”
So, Lars and Svein boil up the fish and try it. They decide that it still tastes pretty awful but the other stuff lying around (some mustard, old potatoes and honey) sure tasted good alongside the fish. The result was a special Juletide dish called Lutefisk. One of the foreigners staying in Norway at the time did note that perhaps it was better to throw the fish out and drink the water it was boiled in instead. Our taxi driver in Trondheim (hello Narva) noted that it took him 16 years to learn to like Lutefisk. What more can I say?
This is another traditional food. Gammel Ost is a cheese that literally translated means old cheese. Generally the smell of this cheese is sufficient to have most foreigners running for the outside air (and in winter, that can be very very cold). Where does it come from? Lars and Svein again.Svein asks “Lars, what have we got to eat, I am a bit hungry?”
Lars looks in the larder and notes that there is nothing there except for some cheese that has been laying around for the last six months. He brings it out.
“Looks a bit mouldy Lars. What are we going to do about the mould? Come to think of it, smells a bit too!”
“I know” says Lars, “let’s call this old cheese (Gammel Ost) and pretend that it is the way it is supposed to be”.
So Lars and Svein invent Gammel Ost.
Not content with dealing with mould on dry fish, Lars and Svein came up with a good recipe. It resulted from their eternal search for food. Upon catching and eating some fresh sea trout after months of Gammel Ost and Lutefisk, they decided that the taste was not piquant enough. So, they decided that in future they would prepare the fish then bury it for two weeks to a month, then dig it up and eat it after it had a chance to get mouldy.This is a classic recipe for this dish. A Swedish cooking supplement in one of the Swedish newspapers noted that:
with this recipe, start with a fresh sea trout. Gut it and prepare the fish, then take it out the back and bury it in the compost heap. Check every day and when the compost heap and the fish smell about the same, dig up the fish, throw it away and eat the compost heap
And that is a true tale
There I was, in the staff canteen in Bergen. For three years I had been eating bread, ham and cheese. How much can a mortal man bear? There was a nice looking cake there. Looked a bit like carrot cake so I thought I would try it. The first bite was an interesting sensation. The second bit filled my mouth with an Ammonia like flavour, not what you would expect in cake. Read on as Lars and Svein discover the secret of cooking Brødkaker.”Lars, what have we got to eat?”
“I don’t know Svein, let me have a look.” Lars looks. “Well Svein, we have some bread that has gone a little mouldy”.
“That’s not going to taste too good Lars, what can we do?”
“I know Svein, let’s use the bread instead of flour and bake a cake. All that sugar should disguise the taste quite well.”
So, Lars and Svein bake a cake using mouldy bread and Brødkaker is the result.
In the Vestland (the West Country of Norway – which is in the mountains behind Bergen) there is a special meal, eaten with a lot of Aquavit naturally, that is known as Smalahoved. This is, in fact, boiled sheep heads. I really don’t need to add more to this other than I tried this in the town of Voss, a very beautiful town in the mountains behind Bergen. I stayed in a delightful old hotel there where I have some wonderful memories from. One of the best memories is the amount of business the hot dog seller outside the discotheque did selling hot dogs to those that had been out for the Smalahoved dinner. Lars and Svein explain again.”Lars, what have we got to eat?”
“Gee Svein, there is nothing much here, have a look in the shed out the back.”
“Hey Lars, there is only some old sheep heads out here and they are a bit mouldy and besides, they are covered with all this old wool. What are we going to do?”
“I know Svein, let’s toss them in the fire and burn off the mould and wool.”
“Hmm Lars, there is still some wool and mould left.”
“Well, toss them in the fire again.”
“Nope, still got some mould and wool left on them.”
Svein, do I have to do all the thinking, toss them on the fire again and keep doing it until all the wool and the mould is gone.”
“OK. Lars, I’ve got it now. The heads are clean. They don’t taste too good the way they are though. A little smoky. What are we going to do now.”
“Well Svein, let’s put them in the smoking shed for a few days where we smoke the salmon”.
A couple of days later Svein reports that the heads taste better but they are not too good cold.
Lars says, “OK Svein, stick them in the pot and we’ll boil them up, that should warm them through.”
The heads are then boiled. Now Svein tries them and says, “hey, they do taste better but one head is too much for me to eat. Have you any ideas Lars.”
Lars says, “OK Svein, just cut the head in half and eat one half then.”
And that is how Smalahoved was born.
The Secret of Norwegian Cuisine
The secret of Norwegian Cuisine is, therefore, mould! Norwegian traditional foods have all been designed to overcome the effects of mould on potential sources of food!And what does it mean – ‘special’ and ‘Aquavit’ in the same sentence?
The combination of the two words, ‘special’ and ‘Aquavit’ on any menu in Norway should serve a warning to the foreigner. What these two words mean is that one of the mentioned foods above is about to be served and the only way you can possibly eat the food is after consuming copious quantities of Aquavit, the traditional Norwegian Spirit. Literally translated, Aquavit means water of life and if it allows you to consume the foods above it may well be true.
Aquavit is many times consumed with beer (Øl) and I have to report that the first time I ate Norwegian special foods I consumed about 7 glasses of beer to each glass of Aquavit. By the time I had been introduced to Smalahoved, I was consuming 7 glasses of Aquavit to each glass of beer. It didn’t help.
Do visit Norway and do enjoy the cuisine, it will give you life time memories!