Author: Brita Drangsholt Jaksjø.
The setting was Lillehammer during the 17th Winter Olympics, the scene the restaurant Mormors Hus, which is owned by one master chef and employs another in the kitchen, both intent on maintaining a Norwegian culinary profile: joy knew no bounds when the wife of the U.S. President announced her intention to visit. “I hope she will forget what she had, but remember the place and the friendliness,” the proprietor said, when Hillary selected a pasta tagliatelli.
Well, what’s wrong with pasta? Nothing, nothing at all. It’s just not Norwegian. Nor is pizza, though we are Europe’s top consumers of frozen pizza, and pizza certainly figures prominently on Norway’s 1994 menu. But Norwegian? What does it take for food to be called Norwegian? Even the potato, thought of as almost as Norwegian as brown goats´ cheese, originally arrived from abroad. Norwegians celebrated the potato’s 250th anniversary last year.
What food, then, is Norwegian? Asked which dish we think of first as Norwegian, 65 per cent of us reply meat cakes, while 36 per cent think of lamb and cabbage stew and 23 per cent reply cod. A nationwide survey carried out in January 1994, in connection with the Government’s promotion “Competitive Strategies for Norwegian Food”, showed distinct regional preferences where dishes are concerned. While meat cakes rank first in all regions, westerners rank potato dumplings second, and Oslo-dwellers rank “lutefisk” (dried cod steeped in lye) third, just ahead of dried mutton ribs and fresh cod.
Although foreign restaurants have sprung up everywhere in the last few years, the survey shows that when Norwegians go out for a meal – which they are doing more and more frequently – what they mostly look for is a good Norwegian dish, preferably made with Norwegian raw materials. The reason for this last preference, according to the same survey, is that a large majority believe that Norwegian raw materials offer better quality.
What farmers ate
According to one Norwegian anthropologist and nutritionist, a distinguishing feature of Norwegian eating habits is that they derive from the peasant diet, unlike those in other European countries, which often filtered down from the court through the upper middle classes. She is contradicted, however, by Hroar Dege, one of Norway’s culinary past masters, a sixties trend-setter, the author of books on food, and still very much a presence. Dege sees Norway’s food culture as a synthesis of the primordial Norse, so to speak, and impulses from the more fashionable kitchens of prosperous continentals. He points to evidence of continental eating habits in Norway as early as in the 1700s, in a yet-to-be-published manuscript dated 1793 and headed “A Norwegian cookbook compiled from Danish, Swedish, German, French, English and Italian cookbooks. Containing many different uses of Norwegian produce in the kitchen and in housekeeping, for flavor and health. By Christopher Hammer.”
Incidentally, Dege, who doesn’t mind stretching a point, claims that when King Harald Hårfagre united the kingdom in around 885, he made a poor job of it where food is concerned, leaving us a tribal country with special fundamentalist eating interests in each region.
No Christmas without Christmas treats
This can seen very clearly at Christmastime. Food is a very important ingredient of Norwegian celebrations, beginning as early as in November, when restaurants start serving their Christmas specials, heavily frequented by businessmen and their guests. Restaurants do a roaring trade in this hectic season, and some are so keen to get off to a flying start that in the fall of 1993, the Oslo press corps was invited to the launch of lutefisk, which is the pre-Christmas dish par excellence, on the last day of September!
On the home front, the approach of Christmas is signaled by the blended smells of exotic spices and goodies in the oven, which at Christmas means gingersnaps, doughnuts, cones and all the other traditional cakes and cookies which are a must for most people at Christmas: many families still call for the traditional “7 kinds”.
Most families also stick to special Christmas dinner traditions. Along the coast, the main dish at home on Christmas Eve is often fresh cod or halibut or lutefisk, while in eastern Norway many prefer pork ribs with pork sausage patties and Christmas sausages. Dried mutton ribs are a west coast specialty. A popular meal earlier in the day, while the other preparations are in full swing, is rice porridge, and many families have rice cream with red fruit sauce for their Christmas dinner dessert.
Livestock and grain farming and the fisherman-farmer
Livestock and grain have always been the staples of Norwegian farms, and our diet is still marked by their products: milk, butter, cheese, meat, and bread and other cereal products. We also have plentiful supplies of fish from our long coastline. The combination of fishing and farming was very common along the coast. The husband went fishing, taking his oldest sons with him, while the wife did the farm work, helped by any smaller children.
Documents from as long ago as the Middle Ages show the importance of the cod and herring fisheries to the Norwegian economy; herring was aptly nicknamed “sea silver”. Salted herring was for many years the stand-by of the less well-to-do. Today herring is no cheaper than other fish.
Salted and pickled herring are used in many of the tasty dishes which make up the Norwegian cold table, and one often finds herring on hotel breakfast tables, pickled or in tomato or mustard sauce.
Fish farming has over the past two decades grown into a major industry up and down the coast, producing large quantities of salmon in particular, mostly for export to markets in Europe, the USA and Japan. With Jarlsberg cheese and aquavit aged in the cask, salmon makes up a trio of our biggest food and drink exports.
Dishes made from ground fish go back a long way in Norway. Names like “Kvitsøyball” and “Kristiansundball” testify to the place of origin on the coast, whereas “mackerel cakes” or “ground saithe cakes” tell us the raw material.
Norway has the world’s best milk – in our opinion. Just as well, perhaps, with milk consumption amounting to 150 liters per head per year! And it seems that our milk is what we miss most when away from home. Our diet also stands out somewhat from those of other industrialized countries in its relatively low meat consumption (about 50 kg.) and relatively high fish consumption.*) Grain production varies from year to year. Climatically, Norway is at the limits of where grain for human consumption can be grown. Norway does not produce its own sugar. Imported sugar was a luxury article for a long time, which may help to account for the use of less sugar in our recipes than recommended in other countries. Sugar is not all we import: in energy terms, we import nearly half of what we eat.
From preservation to delicacies
Many of the items which we regard as typically Norwegian, and which today, in nineties versions, figure as the pièces de résistance on party tables, were first developed to
meet a crying need to store food without the help of freezers. Existence was a struggle to survive (and keep the livestock alive) on the farm from one growing season to the next. Animals were slaughtered in the autumn, when they were heaviest, feed supplies were limited, and nature could help with the refrigeration. Meat and fish alike were preserved using salt, sugar, drying and smoking in various combinations. In addition to salted and smoked meat and fish, salmon and trout were cured under pressure in brine. Milk became butter, cheese and buttermilk. Fresh food was long considered unhealthy, and the use of plenty of salt was encouraged. In Norway’s short growing season and with the older types of grain, there was no guarantee that grain crops would ripen every year.
The commonest baked goods in the old days were flatbread and “lefse” (griddlecakes) Lefse can be crisp or soft: oatcakes, for instance, were baked at low heat until crisp, so that they could be stored in the raised food loft with the flatbread. Soft lefse will not keep. They often contain cream, and can be served as party dainties depending on the ingredients and what they are spread with.
Fresh food only began appearing on dinner tables in the 1700s, with the advent of the cooking stove – and stoves were not for everyone until the beginning of this century.
The season´s produce
It is a far cry from yesterday’s methods of preservation to today’s refrigeration techniques, which in the post-war period virtually displaced other forms of preservation and storage and wiped out the seasons. For a time we enthusiastically seized these new opportunities, and believed in the triumph of technology over seasonal variations. You could get strawberries, salmon or lamb from your freezer all the year round. Today we have a more sober attitude to our freezers. With a revival in recent years of interest in food and food culture, thanks not least to our many first-class cooks, has come a new awareness in Norway of the value of using each season’s fresh produce.
World champion cook
Norwegian cooks are doing very well in international competitions, and the current world champion is Norwegian: Bent Stiansen won the highly regarded Bocuse d´Or award in 1993.
Much of the inspiration for Norwegian cooking at this level comes from French cuisine, but more recently our chefs have been tending to combine continental with characteristically Norwegian, even regional, elements. Arne Brimi, the master chef from Lom, has been a pioneer in this respect. Food should be fussed with as little as possible, leaving the natural flavors of the raw materials – from the sea, from the fields, from the highlands and mountains – to predominate. The dishes grandma made are reappearing, and an amazing pride is being taken in Norwegian raw materials and cooking traditions which to foreigners often smack of a rather exotic heritage.
Historically, diets in Norway varied from region to region depending on local resources. Such differences are less marked today, with the food industry supplying ready-to-heat or ready-to-eat products all over the country, but each region still maintains its typical dishes, based on local products.
Fast food and a reaction
As in other industrialized countries, this century has seen vast changes in our diet, and the process may even appear to have speeded up in recent years with fast food and ready-to-serve products. Some people seem to find eating almost a nuisance, something to be got out of the way. But we can also see a reaction, in a renewed interest in food and delight in good meals and the art of preparing them – especially at week-ends. With Norwegian consumers seeking pure foods, Norwegian manufacturers are seizing the opportunity to do what they are best at, and producing food from the world’s purest raw materials.
Imagine two foreigners traveling in Norway. One has brought his own food supplies for the journey, while the other eats at the roadside restaurants and cafés, goes to the local bakery, buys freshly boiled shrimps straight from the fishing boat, and perhaps even gets invited to someone’s home. Are they really visiting the same country?
In southern Norway in May, a tourist can enjoy fried mackerel and stewed rhubarb. In the summer, there are fresh berries and vegetables everywhere, the latter often served with salted or smoked meats. Norwegian ice cream is excellent, and popular, all over the country. In September, lamb comes into its own, with fragrant roasts or steaming bowls of lamb and cabbage stew. What our chefs acclaim as the world’s best lamb has spent a long summer grazing in Norway’s vast highlands on juicy grass and herbs. As autumn rolls on, game frequently appears on the menu. In the Advent season, our tourist can choose between the traditional Christmas menus or lutefisk, available all over the country. Later in winter, Lofoten cod is the major attraction, whether eaten locally or flown to southern Norway.
Taking a packed lunch to work or to school is a very widespread Norwegian habit. The managing director and the first-grader alike leave home clutching a paper package of slices of bread and butter overlaid with cheese, ham, egg or liver paste. Despite the spread of company canteens with their tempting offers, the packed lunch is holding its own. Norwegian workers prefer a shorter lunch break, in exchange for being able to leave work earlier in the afternoon.
From vegetables for storage to “strawberries under the snow”
The Norwegian mainland stretches from 58° to 71°N, and has a growing season of only 190 days in the south and 100 days in the north and the mountains. It is only thanks to the Gulf Stream that we can farm as much as we do. Where vegetables are concerned, we aim to be self-sufficient in varieties that withstand storage, like carrots, onions, cabbage and Swedes, also known as “Nordic oranges”. But our cold climate is also an advantage. Slow ripening in light Nordic summer nights gives us vegetables, berries and fruit full of aroma and sweetness.
There are no serious animal or plant diseases in Norway. The reasons are our northerly latitudes, having the sea as our neighbors, our scattered farms, and not least the high standards of food production aimed at by Norwegian farmers.
One aim of the national promotion mentioned earlier, “Competitive Strategies for Norwegian Food”, is precisely to present what we have traditionally seen as disadvantages to Norwegian agriculture as competitive advantages.
One result of the national campaign has been the establishment of the new foundation called “Godt Norsk” (Good Norwegian). It will promote quality assurance, approval of users of brand names, documentation of competitive advantages, and the marketing of a new labeling scheme to Norwegian consumers. The first launch of products labeled “Godt Norsk” took place recently.
Finally, “strawberries under the snow”. The concept was applied to some of the cultural activities in connection with the Lillehammer Games. I want it to symbolize the fresh Norwegian strawberries served even in Norway’s coldest winter for many years, strawberries from “hanging gardens” in greenhouses. The fact is, though, that the strawberries from our northernmost farms, ripening as they do when the season in southern Norway is drawing to a close, are often found covered in the first new snow.
The author, Brita Drangsholt Jaksjø B.A., is a Senior Executive Officer in the Information Department of the Central Office of Agricultural Cooperatives in Norway.
Norwegian article name: Norsk mat.