A writer returns to Norway in search of family and culinary roots.
The train steadily climbs, and its passengers grow silent, as we head into Norway’s Hardangervidda mountain range. Since leaving sea-level Oslo four hours earlier, we’ve skirted August fields of ripening grain and hurtled through corridors of sun-dappled birch. Countless vacation cottages—known as hytter, or huts, in typically self-effacing Norwegian fashion—have flashed by in a few clicks of the rail, leaving us to wonder how many houses here could possibly be painted barn-red with white trim, and stand beside a river, a lake or the sea.
But now, farms, trees, and idle conversation are left behind as we enter a boulder-strewn plateau nearly 4,000 feet high, a landscape of somber, spare beauty dotted with small lakes that reflect the steely sky, overlooked by the looming, frozen flow of Hardangerjøkulen glacier. Twenty-five miles ahead lies my connection with another train that will snake back down the mountains, past thundering Kjos Falls, to a branch of Sogne Fjord, one of the narrow arms of the North Atlantic that reach deep into Norway’s craggy interior. There, I will board a ferry, sail by pocket-sized orchards and sheer, thousand-foot cliffs, and disembark at Undredal, a village where goats far outnumber the 85 humans and a co-op produces exceptional geitost, the unique Norwegian cheese made from whey cooked for hours into a dense, caramelized, sweet-nutty paste.
A Return to Norway in Search of Culinary Roots
It has been 35 years since I first saw Norway as a not-quite-formed man, an 18-year-old American backpacking through Europe with his brother. Curious about our Norwegian roots, we sought out the dairy farm where, on a summer day in 1849, my great-great grandparents packed up their three young children and began a harrowing, fifteen-week odyssey to a better life in Wisconsin. Then in their thirties, Klemet Klemetsen and Marte Kristensdatter would never again see their native land, a proud but bitterly poor country from which a massive human wave—800,000 people, nearly a third of the population—would eventually cross the Atlantic and wash onto New World shores.
Seeing the ancestral farm moved me—“Perhaps my great-great grandfather once sat on the very spot I am sitting on now,” I wrote in an earnest, three-page journal entry at the time—but the visit also had a comic side. Armed with a letter of introduction in Norwegian, a language utterly foreign to our ears, my brother and I were welcomed with fresh milk, home-baked gingersnaps, and a barrage of apparently friendly words by an old couple to whom we were somehow related but who spoke no English. I recall nodding and smiling a lot.
Though Klemet and Marte have been on my mind the past few days, it’s not family but food—specifically, Norwegians’ renewed devotion to their culinary heritage—that has brought me back. With much of this Scandinavian nation of 4.6 million people extending above the Arctic Circle and a mere 3 percent of its land under cultivation, Norwegian cooking has never had the luxury of being fine or fancy. Similar to Danish and Swedish cuisine but generally more rustic and elemental, it’s the food of people trying to make it through another long winter, or grateful to have done so.
Whether gravlaks or a humble apple cake, wafer-thin rye flatbread or a Christmas favorite like pinnekjøtt—salted, dried, and sometimes smoked sides of lamb steamed over birch sticks until tender—Norwegian cooking at its best depends less on elaborate technique or clever seasoning than on good, honest ingredients. And with those, Norway is brimming: salmon, cod, halibut and shellfish from 52,000 pristine miles of coastline; mushrooms, game and wild berries from mountains and forests; apples, cherries, strawberries and other fruit whose intense flavor is due in part to long hours of summer sunlight; and cheese, butter, and thick cream from one of Europe’s purest dairy herds.
Norwegian Food: A Reawakening
Though modern industrial efficiency has taken a toll on traditional Norwegian foods, in recent decades a potentially more ominous threat came from an unlikely source: the North Sea oil that turned Scandinavia’s poor country cousin into a rich nation. Hordes of Norwegians—armed with curiosity and kroner this time, not Viking swords—traveled overseas and returned with a hankering for foods never before a part of their diet and the idea of eating for pleasure. Norwegian chefs snagged medals at Lyon’s prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition, and a small constellation of Michelin stars appeared in Oslo. On supermarket shelves, pizza and extra virgin olive oil muscled aside sild og poteter, literally “herring and potatoes” but also slang for “the basics.” “It was as if a door to the world opened,” I was told by chef Tom Victor Gausdal, a Bocuse d’Or medalist, when we spoke in an Oslo café over cups of the strong coffee Norwegians drink all day. “We were free to cook and eat what we wanted.”
And then something unexpected happened. “As we learned to appreciate the foods of other countries,” said Gausdal, “we looked again at what grows in our own backyard.” Farmers’ markets have sprung up for the first time in larger cities, farmstead tourism is surging, and home cooks are rediscovering artisan food shops like Oslo’s Fenaknoken and Bergen’s Sesong, where I saw stacks of air-dried cod used to make notoriously gelatinous lutefisk and sampled velvety salt-cured leg of lamb and cultured butters of complex flavor.
Chefs are marrying French technique with stellar local ingredients to create the sort of New Norwegian dishes I encountered during a memorable dinner at the restaurant Oslo Spiseforretning, which included an earthy, forest mushroom soup topped with oxtail terrine, a dollop of sour cream, and a drizzle of bright green emulsion made from rämsløk, a wild allium known as Viking garlic. On television, in newspapers, and in books, Norwegian food—even husmannskost, or everyday cooking—has become a topic of serious discussion. “The renaissance is still very new,” Gausdal told me. “But food that originally was created for survival is slowly becoming food to be cherished.”
A date with Some Goats and Their Cheese
“I have the most beautiful workplace in the world,” says Pascale Baudonnel, head of Undredal’s goat cheese co-op. We’re sitting with her dog in an outboard motor boat in a fjord, thirty feet from a narrow shore where part of her pure-bred Norwegian herd bleats raucously for attention. Positioned between us in the boat is a skittish nanny, and while talking we pluck burrs from the animal’s long, coarse hair. On the far side of the fjord, set against emerald hillsides and a rugged scarp, stands Undredal: a huddle of houses, a tiny church, a river tumbling to the fjord.
But Baudonnel, a French woman who came here 24 years ago to work as a goatherd and then married a son of the village, is not easily distracted by scenery. With occasional interruptions from the goat-bleat ring of her cell phone, she tells me about her 50 milk-producing nannies and about Norsk Gardsost, the 140-member association of small-scale Norwegian cheesemakers she founded in 1991 to promote traditional products and fight a de facto ban on raw milk. Undredal’s co-op is one of only six Norwegian raw-milk cheese producers authorized to sell outside their village or farm, and Baudonnel herself often makes the nearly three-hour drive to the monthly farmers’ market in Bergen.
Later, in her pine-paneled house, she serves a typically simple lunch of crackly flatbread and pålegg—there’s no one-word translation, but it means “something to put on bread” and refers to anything from peeled shrimp with mayonnaise and lemon to leverpostei (a pork-liver spread) with a slice of pickled beet. In this case, it’s the co-op’s own products: caramel-brown geitost, sliced paper-thin, and two tomme-like white cheeses made from pressed curds, one aged, dry, and deeply flavored, the other young and mild. And even as we eat her own cheese, Baudonnel describes her visits with an octogenarian farm wife to learn how to make gamalost, a pungent, aged cheese of skimmed cow’s milk whose defunct farmstead production she dreams of reviving.
In Bergen, Homemade Fish Soup
I encounter a similar focus and passion in Bergen, where I arrive as the appearance of summer sun is luring thousands to public squares and open-air cafes amid historic Hanseatic League warehouses. At the restaurant På Høyden, chef-owner Hanne Froste has sworn off virtually every non-native ingredient—“I don’t even have a lemon in the kitchen,” she tells me—to create New Norwegian dishes that resonate. I dip spelt bread into a tangy mix of birch oil and berry vinegar, and polish off a plate of smoked trout paired with lightly pickled cucumber and shredded carrot poached in fish stock. Mussels are a fruity-briny revelation, steamed in an aromatic bath of tart apple-juice concentrate, Viking garlic, and tarragon oil. A frozen parfait topped with red currents and small preserved plums has the haunting, almond-like flavor of meadow-wort, an herb once used in Viking mead-making.
After the meal, Froste and I join one of her cooks and foragers, Knut Erling, as he hunts for ingredients in a forest on the outskirts of town. The sound of a gurgling creek accompanies us as we wander by moss-covered trees and stop to pick the last raspberries of summer, tiny blueberries that instantly stain my fingers indigo, and puckery lingonberries that glow like rubies against low, dark foliage. Erling discovers chanterelles, pale-orange harbingers of autumn. “We dry a lot of these to use in winter stews and pot roasts,” he says while delicately cutting them from the forest floor. “It’s a real treat to have them during the cold, dark months.”
Through Froste I meet Mons Kvamme, a Bergen botanist whose interest in local ecosystems led to a business distributing the meat of Villsau sheep. Descendants of an ancient, northern breed that freely graze year-round on grass, algae, and other wild vegetation of coastal moors, the sheep have rebounded from near-extinction thanks to Norsk Villsaulag, a 400-member association of Villsau breeders established in 1995. Kvamme and his wife, Elin, invite me to dinner in their memento-filled wooden house, parts of which date to the late 1700s. I’m hoping to taste Villsau lamb and am not disappointed when Elin, a junior high headmistress, briefly sautés loin medallions and chanterelles and serves them as an appetizer sprinkled with herb salt. Lean and tender and not at all muttony, the lamb reminds me more of venison than domestic sheep.
The evening’s main course is to be Bergen-style fish soup, and the Kvammes’ cozy red-and-royal-blue kitchen is already filled with the rich aroma of the reduced fish-vegetable stock Elin has made. “Everybody has their own way of making the soup, and mine changes every time depending on what vegetables and fish are in the market,” she says while sliding sliced carrots, leeks, parsnips, and potatoes into the simmering stock. She later adds fish fillets—sturdy, monkfish-like spotted wolf-fish followed by snow white cod and pollock—and then little balls of fish forcemeat made of minced fresh fish, potato flour, and milk. Elin finishes the dish with sour cream, goat cream cheese (“my secret ingredient”), chopped fresh dill, and a few grates of nutmeg, and the result is less a soup than a creamy stew of distinct flavors from sea and garden.
We linger for hours at the dining table, talking of the Kvammes’ trips to America, my great-great grandparents, wild Norwegian sheep, and a dozen other topics. By midnight, when I head back to the hotel, the candles have burned low and the long summer light has finally left the sky.
Lunch on a Fjord-side Farm
Cherries hang plump and heavy on trees, shiny orbs of burgundy-dark sweetness balanced with a touch of acid, and I can’t stop picking and eating them. Torkjell Nå eggs me on, and also hands me different apples and plums to try. We are walking through orchards on the fjordside farm he shares with his wife, Turid, and their three young children in the heart of the Hardanger region. With its fertile soil and relatively mild winter, due largely to the Gulf Stream that brushes Norway’s western coast, Hardanger has been a center of fruit-growing almost since the early 13th century, when English monks first taught local farmers the art of grafting.
I’ve traveled Hardanger by car the past two days, gliding across placid fjords on ferry boats and winding along two-lane highways where I often pulled over to take in mountain vistas, investigate a roadside fruit-stand, or simply pause to breathe the late-summer smell of sun on dried grass. I’ve sipped hard apple cider with its makers and eaten breakfast in the home of a goat-dairy family after the herd’s morning milking. I’ve dined on grilled asparagus with cured lamb and baked halibut with apple-infused cream at the Utne Hotel, an old, whitewashed country inn whose period salons look as if Hedda Gabler might drop in for tea. And now, with one day left before I fly home to the States, I’ve accepted the Nås’ invitation to join them for a meal at Måge Gardsbutikk, their farmstead store and restaurant.
In the kitchen, Torkjell and I find Turid rolling lefse—soft flatbread made with potato—and slicing it into rounds after first spreading it with white goat cheese, Viking garlic puree, and a layer of thinly sliced smoked salmon. Turid has also prepared hakkasteik, a traditional wedding hash of barley and chopped fresh beef and salt- and smoke-cured pork and lamb; served with boiled fresh carrots, it proves hearty but not heavy, and enticingly smoky. From the oven she pulls two low cakes, one with apples and vanilla cream, the other with fleshy, red plums and marzipan. Just before we sit, she concocts a dessert topping of whipped cream enriched with egg yolks beaten with vanilla and sugar. The meal is simple but deeply satisfying.
The room in which we eat is dominated by a huge fireplace and hearth where the Nås brew beer and bake krotakake, a local variant of the dried flatbread that keeps for months and once sustained Norwegians during hard winters. I talk with Torkjell and Turid about the recent uptick in visitors to their farm who are looking for high-quality food, and about the restaurateurs who now seek out their products. They tell me about their kids, about Torkjell’s winter work as a carpenter, and about the six months they traveled the world before settling on the farm, which belonged to Turid’s family. Though they don’t come out and say it—because doing so is just not in the Norwegian character—they appear about as contented as two people can be.
Back in Bergen the following day, I happen on the small but lively farmers’ market and treat myself to a hot lefse slathered with thick, slightly soured cream and raspberry puree. Wandering the sellers’ stalls, I spot Pascale Baudonnel offering goat cheese samples to passersby. We greet each other like long-lost friends, and I tell her where I’ve been since our last encounter. Eventually, however, when the steady stream of customers makes conversation impossible, I say goodbye and give her a kiss on each cheek. It’s a simple gesture of farewell that, in this case, feels like something more: an expression, perhaps, of genuine admiration for what she’s doing and a way of saying ‘thanks’ on behalf of Klemet and Marte.