by Judith Newton
My husband Bill and I sit in a wood-beamed, wood-paneled restaurant in Bergen Norway. To Kokker (Two Cooks) is tucked away down a dark and impossibly narrow alley constructed of thick wooden planks from the 16th century, one of the few parts of Bryggen, Bergen’s harbor district, that did not burn down during the great fire of 1702. The paneling and beams of the restaurant, which sits right next to Bergen’s tiny Resistance Museum, have been painted rose and the table cloths are a pale pink with napkins folded into pink shells. This is a fine restaurant, very Norwegian in its feel, and I am about to order Whale Carpaccio and Filet of Reindeer, two Norwegian specialties that I have never tasted and am unlikely ever to taste again.
Why whale and reindeer you might ask? My mother was Norwegian, and my imagined relation to Norway, like my real relation to my mother, has always been complex. After a lifetime of choosing not to see Norway, my motherland, but also the land of my mother, I thought it time to encounter this heritage. But still uncertain about how I would relate to Norwegian ways, I decided that eating something indisputably Norwegian—whale and reindeer—would be an easy, and also bold, way to enter the culture.
Although I grew up in what might be called a Norwegian home, its relation to Norwegian culture and cuisine was much diluted by the fact that my mother had left Portland, North Dakota, and the enclave of Norwegian immigrants to which she was born, and moved to Southern California at the age of twenty-six. In Southern California, ties to the past are quick to fade, and my mother’s cooking was sporadically Norwegian at best. She served us tacos and enchiladas along with a generically Midwestern menu of meat, potatoes, and pies. But she did make Norwegian cookies and breads, especially at Christmas—thin scrolls of strull (made by pouring a sweet batter into an iron press, cooking it over a flame, and rolling the warm circle of baked dough, now impressed with hearts and flowers, into a cylinder); sandbakkels, made by baking a dough of butter and flour in fluted tins and then popping the cookies out like little tarts of sand; and lefse, a soft tortilla-like bread made of potatoes and flour.
We also had lutefisk, a piece of cod preserved in lye, soaked to remove the lye, then boiled to the consistency of Jell-O and served with butter. Garrison Keillor described lutefisk as “a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat.” That pretty much sums up lutefisk. My father, brother, and I refused to eat it. My mother and her sister ate it with the reverence usually reserved for sacral food. “Try a bite of it at least,” they’d plead. (Some people claim that Vikings discovered how to make lutefisk after sailing their knife-edged boats to Ireland, which they fully intended to pillage and plunder. Was it lutefisk that made them so cranky?)
Before leaving on our trip, I read a sprightly book called In Cod We Trust, a Norwegian American’s account of living in Norway for a year. The book had much to say about the prevalence of fish in Norwegian cuisine. Fish (without lye) is the most common dish in Norway and certainly the most common dish in Bergen, a city of 250,000 that lies on the western coast of Norway right on the water, although islands protect it from the ravages of the North Sea. Above the harbor, old wooden houses cling to the sides of thickly forested mountains, giving the city an oddly isolated feel.
In Cod We Trust also taught me about Norwegian fish cookery, about the practice, as outlined in a Norwegian cookbook, of boiling “all the flavor out of the fish in a pot of salted water with a dash of vinegar.” In typical Scandinavian fashion, the cookbook maintains that fish “should have no other flavor than its own” and warns against adding any spices or seasonings that would “diminish the flavor of the fish.” One of the author’s Norwegian acquaintances complained, “You Americans are always asking, ‘Does it taste fishy?’ Of course it tastes fishy; it’s fish.” As an American who’d learned to cook by working through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I had always preferred my fish to taste of sauce, preferably one involving shallots, wine, butter, and cream.
Standing in Bergen’s open air fish market, surrounded by bright slabs of salmon, coral mountains of shrimp, and pearly mounds of translucent cod, it dawned on me, with a shock, that my mother had never served us fish. (Well, maybe an occasional fish stick.) This despite the fact that her Scandinavian cookbook contains recipes for anchovy casserole, salmon with sour cream, cod fish balls, creamed codfish, fish pudding, cod casserole, salmon loaf, and escalloped and pickled herring. And she was pure Norwegian! Had her people lost their taste for fish while living on a farm in North Dakota since the middle of the nineteenth-century? Or since North Dakota has lakes and streams, after all, as well as a fishing industry, did her people boil fish without seasonings? Had that put her off her native cuisine? Did my Norwegian mother have a mutant gene?
It was my reading, and not my childhood experience, that prepared me for the omnipresence of Norwegian fish, though it hadn’t prepared me for so much of it. I decided, nonetheless, not to order fish in Norwegian restaurants. Norway is the most expensive country in Europe thanks to the oil and gas discovered in the 1960s (the revenue from which goes directly into Norway’s enviable social welfare program), and Norway remains relatively untouched by the current economic crisis. It stayed with the Krone, never went near the Euro, and indeed never entered the European Union.
That seems about right for a people given to building houses on the edge of great forests, or along the shores of fjords unreachable by roads, a people whose connection to their neighbors might sometimes depend on their getting in a boat and rowing.
Bergen Fjord Settlement
Norwegians are familiar with isolation, self reliance, and generally going their own way. I remember my mother saying to me once, “I’ve always been a loner.” But I digress. In a Norwegian restaurant, a (skimpy) glass of wine costs eighteen-to-twenty dollars, and a piece of cod often runs fifty-five. I wasn’t going to pay fifty-five dollars for boiled fish! In preparation for the trip, my husband and I discussed the price of food in Norway and decided to splurge on a restaurant that offered whale and reindeer and then to eat a lot of open-faced sandwiches, a Norwegian specialty, and to microwave some frozen dinners in the spartan apartments we’d rented from young Norwegian men.
As it turned out, the microwaves in both apartments were broken or missing in action, and, at any rate, the frozen food section of our local market offered little more than pizza and fish—fish filets, fish cakes, something that looked (unpromisingly) like fish mixed with potatoes. As it turned out, too, the sandwiches we ate, the sandwiches most easily available to us, consisted of fish and their fishy cousins—salmon and cucumber on a baguette, salmon mixed with something that seemed to be bits of butter and cheese, salmon on sliced, hard-boiled egg, shrimp piled so high on a baguette that you couldn’t see the baguette at all. Soon we were eating fish twice a day.
Oslo Fish Soup
We ate fishcakes from the fish market—ground cod mixed with flour and herbs and fried into a rather dense and chewy patty. At a waterside café we savored creamy fish soup with a mix of salmon, mussels, and shrimp. And back at our apartment my husband made sandwiches by layering mackerel canned in tomato sauce on a whole wheat roll. (I drew the line at mackerel in tomato sauce and made my own sandwiches out of Norwegian Jarlsberg cheese on a roll thickly spread with Norwegian butter. Norwegian butter, umm.) I also drew the line at fish pudding, fish jerky, and rotfisk (rotten fish) which was traditionally made by covering trout with sugar and salt and burying it for three or four months until it was, well, rotten. Nowadays rotfisk is more delicately referred to as “fermented trout,” and is made by letting the trout sit around in its own juices for a few days. Rotfisk, which is served raw, is an acquired, and somewhat risky taste, since cases of botulism have not been unknown. Still, even without the rotfisk, we were “eating Norwegian” long before the whale and reindeer moment.
Oslo Fish Cakes
Our blonde, blue-eyed waitress laughs when I order reindeer. I guess Americans don’t order reindeer all that much. Or maybe she laughs because I order reindeer right after I order whale. I tell her I am conducting an experiment. She nods and smiles and says “They’re really good.” And yes, I know I’m not supposed to be eating whale. Norway’s insistence on whaling is one reason it never joined the EU. But Norwegians, as I’ve said, tend to go their own way. I eat the whale. It’s a Norwegian thing to do. The whale has been smoked and tastes like ham, but it is dark in color and has a smooth texture, the kind of texture you’d expect from a seagoing mammal. The reindeer is very tender and strangely smooth, as well. It tastes like meat but not like any meat I’ve ever eaten. It’s pleasant but distinctly foreign, and I’m glad for the dark, plumy game sauce that covers it. Later, I learn that Norwegians eat very little whale or reindeer. Those dishes are for special occasions or for dinners out in tony restaurants that specialize in traditional cuisine.
It is in Oslo, in another beamed restaurant from the 16th century, that I eat the best meal of the trip. Stortorvets Gjaestgiveri is a homey restaurant with an expensive fine dining menu and a cheaper café one. We debate about going in, fearful that the affordable café menu is just for the afternoon. We are near the end of our trip and we’re low on funds, but we’re also tired of fish sandwiches, so we enter and are delighted to find that the café menu is still good. We order, and for only thirty dollars I am served a piece of tender salmon in a pool of butter sauce. The salmon melts in my mouth. It tastes of salmon but not in a fishy way; the Norwegian butter sauce is sublime, and the same dish costs more than fifty dollars on the fine dining menu. I’m eating Norwegian and it feels just right.