Takk for maten: Norway’s food

Michael Pollan, in the introduction to his book Cooked (which also inspired the Netflix show) writes that ‘Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place.’ That ritualisation, that invented tradition – of dinnertime, of the family meal , its romantic and platonic equivalents – is central in some way to who we are as people. Certainly, it is a mark of a particular kind of modernity. Cooking, some have argued, is the key to our being human. Claude Levi-Strauss as far back as 1964 argued in  that it was cooking which ‘establishes the difference btween animals and people.’ Richard Wrangham in his study, Catching Fire , writes ‘around that fire we became tamer.’ The idea of a group sharing a hearth from which sustenance comes is a seductive one.

Sharing meals with friends and families has become a defining marker of sociability, social status and indeed social capital. Eating alone is considered a sad enterprise, though it need not always be, of course. Sometimes eating alone can be a pleasurable experience, even having the sense of the transgressive about it. In his comical but accurate The Social Guidebook to Norway, Julien S. Bourrelle writes that ‘They also eat alone / You do not need to talk / And it is a practical and efficient way to feed oneself quickly / You can then go home early / Or go training / alone’. Such glib humour has a ring of the true about it, but, so far at least, my experiences of Norwegian food culture have been in some respects highly communal.

Not only communal, but as so many food cultures, deeply rooted in both land and sea. In the 1981 book Norsk Mat the opening lines are:

den gamle norsk matkultur er sprunget fram av selvforsyningsprinsippet, og ble bestemt av den tilgang av matemner som landsdelen og garden kunne gi.

The old Norwegian food culture springs from the prinicple of self-sufficiency, and was determined by the food sources a region and garden could provide.

In the first chapter, ‘Norsk Matskikk’, ‘Norwegian food practices’, Hilmar Stigum notes that

Historien om norsk mat gir oss variert bilde med lysog og skyggesider. Vårt folk har spist den mat de hadde. Det falt ikke alltid sammen med hva de hadde mest lyst på, og maten innholdt ikke alltid de ingredienser som kroppen trengte. Det er en historie om fylte stabbur med kornbinger som innholdt så mye korn at det ville vare for flere år  fremover, og med rekker av delvis gulnede fleskeskinker  som var en følge  av overskuddet fra tidligere år. På mindre gårder var stubberene ikke fullt så innholdsrike , men oftest så fulle at innholdte ville rekke til nest års avling ble bragt i hus. Endelig får vi husmenn og småkårsfolk hvor forrådet ofte lå i underkant av det nødvendige  og some til tider var helt utilstrekkelig. Vi får også  høre om uår  flere år  på rad så katastrofale følger at det gjør  ondt å lese om det.

The story of Norwegian food gives us varied picture with light and shade. Our people ate what they had. It was not always what they wanted, and the food did not always have the ingredients that the body needed. It is a story about overflowing storehouses with grain bins that contained so much grain that it would last for several years, and with rows of partly yellowed pork hams which was the result of profits from previous years. On smaller farms the grain bins were not quite so rich, but often so full tthat next year’s crop was brought in house. Finally we get crofters and common people whose nourishment was just on the line and some at times was totally inadequate. We’ll also hear about crop failure for several years so catastrophic that it does evil just to read about it.

In a harsh landscape that was often far from suitable to farming, people eked out a subsistence living. As Karen Larsen’s A History of Norway notes of the mid-18th century:

Thousands of crofters were settled on the outlying parts of the larger farms, and they with their families cleared large stretches of land… Their lot was poverty and endless toil, often for hard masters and without economic security…

While a law to improve their lot was passed in 1750, itt is no wonder perhaps that in the coming century, some 800,000 Norwegians should begin to emigrate to the United States. And it is also perhaps, no wonder either, that Norway’s most famous novel by it’s most famous novelist, Knut Hamsun, should be called Sult (Hunger). The hunger of Hamsun’s character is both intellectual and physical and forms part of the long standing tradition of the flaneur wandering the streets hungry for many things. So feast and famine, hunger and fullness are part of the Norwegian food culture.

In every age however, food was shaped by outside as well interior forces. Larsen writes of the Viking age that ‘new vegetables, such as turnips and cabbage, were introduced from the British Isles and also new breeds of stock. The Norwegians also learned better methods of agriculture, which the English, and Irish had inherited from the Romans.’

The gelatinous, lye-soaked lutefisk is much improved by the addition of fried bacon and grease. A shot of aquavit also helps!

Fish of course was central not alone to subsistence and survival but also to commerce. Larsen again notes that for Bergen ‘more important [than iron mining] was the wealth of herring and cod [in the 17th century]. Nor was the salmon fishing in the many streams by any means negligible. The schools of herring came and went in the most unaccountable way, a gift of God in a special sense, it was felt, which might be withdrawn at any time as a punishment for sin.’ This fear of the potential dearth in the cold northern lands is perhaps at least a partial explanation for the practical methods of preservation that are such a mark of Norwegian fish eating – from the lye soaked cod or burbot of lutefisk and the fermented trout or char that makes up rakfisk. Nothing is wasted.

Chanterelle mushrooms, a firm favourite in Norway.

Picking berries and mushrooms from the wild growth of the vast forests is still very much a part of Norwegian eating. We are entering mushroom season, and so popular is it that in some places, at car parks near forests where people begin their hikes in search of mushrooms there is even a Soppkontroll (Mushroom Control). These volunteers advise people on their return of whether or not the mushrooms they have picked are safe for eating or poisonous. There are also plenty of ripe berries to be picked – cloudberries (moltebær), blueberries and something very unusual: markbær, a wild berry that is for all the world a tiny strawberry that tastes sweet and grows wild only for a short time. Self-sufficiency is still very much a part of the culture of food here.

A country’s food culture is a vital part of getting to know it. If cooking, and the rituals that spring up around the meal, are indeed what helps to make us human, then getting to know a country’s food culture is an excellent way to get to the heart of the place.





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