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1950s Archive

Norwegian Journey

Originally Published June 1959

In Norway, the sea is everywhere. Not content with the seventeen hundred miles of coast line that the country's rough outline gives it, the sea sends greedy-fingered fords into the very heart of the country, touching the land along nearly twelve thousand miles. Oslo, the capital city, ought to be sixty miles inland but is really on the sea, and it is only a three-minute walk from the main street to the wharves, where all the fruits of the sea are landed, and eaten, too.

Norwegians eat shrimps as if they were peanuts, and when my husband and I arrived in Oslo, we joined the people who thronged the waterfront, paper bags of freshly fried shrimps in hand, eating happily. After this informal introduction to Norway's sea food, we revised our plan to eat a sea-food dinner and chose another specialty of the country, ryper med tyttebaer, which is ptarmigan garnished with lingonberries, a tart fruit closely related to the American cranberry.

Our blond waiter, courteous and dignified, was obviously gratified by our choice. Apparently not many foreigners have the good sense—and epicurean curiosity—to try ptarmigan prepared in this typically Norwegian fashion. The ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family, lives in the Arctic regions of Norway. In winter its plumage turns a protective white and earns it the sobriquet of “snowbird.” The birds are browned in butter, then braised until the meat literally falls away from the bones. The sauce is made with quantities of rich sour cream and with goats-milk cheese, and the tart tyttebaer provide a perfect accompaniment.

The waiter apparently felt that our obvious appreciation of one of his country's specialties deserved another, and brought us for dessert cloudberries in a bath of thick cream. The yellow cloudberry, which has a curious nutty flavor, grows only in Norway and in the highlands of Scotland. The Norwegian summer may be short, but long hours of intense sunlight produce berries of unmatched sweetness, and the succulent grasses of the mountain meadows inspire the cows to produce extraordinarily rich cream.

We had expected to find no such luxury in Norway. Just after the war, a young Norwegian student lived with us in Paris. Out day, we asked her if she could make an omelet, and she said, “I'll try, but I must warn you—Norwegians are the baddest cookers in the world.” She was wrong, of course, but understandably so. As a child of the war years, she had grown up in a country surrounded by waters so heavily planted with mines that fishing was almost at a standstill. Her family had subsisted on relief packages from friends in occupied Denmark who were somehow not quite so badly off as the Norwegians. But now cream and butter could be had again and the cuisine lost its wartime austerity.

We could find no better place to see old Norway, friends told us, than along the fiord-indented west coast, where the mountains rise abruptly from the sea and ancient seaports like Sravanger and Bergen have prospered since the Middle Ages. Sravanger is a convention city. It possesses, in Sola airport, one of the few fog free airports in northern Europe, three and a half hours from London by air. All through the winter, businessmen come to Stavanger to hold conferences and to enjoy the splendid meals at the Hotel Atlantic. The variety of dining rooms in the Atlantic would stagger the chief steward of an ocean liner. There are formal and informal dining rooms for every purpose, and one room that specializes in a cold buffet for breakfast and luncheon. About this koldtbord, more later.

We especially enjoyed the Mortpumpen Room, a romantic memorial to a colorful quarter of Sravanger that had almost been allowed to slip into the past. For centuries, in the days of the sailing ships, Stavanger served as home port for the men of the sea, and many old sailors retired to pleasant little wooden cottages down by the harbor. In time, many of the houses began to deteriorate, and in an enthusiastic wave of modern town planning, some of them were removed. Then the Norwegians belatedly realized that with the destruction of the old houses an irreplaceable heritage was also destroyed, and a countermovement began to restore the old mariners' quarter to its original charm. A copy of one of the quarter's squares exists in the Mortpumpen Room. The walls of the room depict facades of old houses, and the town pump stands in the center of the room, with a trout swimming in its trough. By candlelight, it all looks startlingly realistic.

The Mortpumpen Room serves only fish and sea food, and here we enjoyed the finest fish we ate in all Norway, a version of sole Marguery made with the uniquely flavored, firm-textured sole that can be caught only in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The fish comes to the table garnished with shrimps and mussels and flaky crescents of puff paste.

Because it was Saturday, we were urged to try crêpes Atlantique, a weekend specialty of great local significance. The crêpe is filled with ice cream, liberally doused with Cognac, and set aflame. Law prohibits the sale of spirits in Norwegian bars on weekends, and the enormous consumption of crépes Atlantique on those days is surely no coincidence. The properly indoctrinated diner blows out the flame so that he can enjoy the Cognac!

Norway's limited prohibition does not sit well with its citizens, who have discovered ingenious and legal ways to avoid it. Behind the Hotel Atlantic looms a mountain which is ipso facto outside the hotel and Therefore not bound by the rules. Some fertile imagination conceived the notion of tunneling a cave out of the mountainside and establishing in it a private club open only to “friends” of the management. It's all as private as your living room. No waiter or bartender ever sets foot within the sacred precincts. A bar made from a barrel holds the liquor and you serve yourself. The letter of the law is thus scrupulously observed, and everybody stays happy, particularly the friends of the management.

We reluctantly left Stavanger to make our way to Bergen, this time Norwegian style, by ferry, fiord steamer, and bus. Our reward was an unbelievably breath-taking view of the most glorious scenery in Europe, completely untouched by the ravages of industry and still unspoiled by tourism. The villages cluster along the banks of the fiords, and a steamer gets the same kind of reception a stagecoach must have had in our own pioneer West. When people normally isolated from the world come into contact with outsiders even for a few minutes, the occasion becomes a holiday, something to celebrate. Our steamer unloaded a cargo of mail, bicycles, cases of food, and ponies. We watched with amazement as cranes lifted the tawny fiord ponies out of the steamer, their bellies cradled in canvas slings, and we believed, perforce, that these hard-working little horses are extremely placid and good-natured. Farmers find fiord ponies invaluable on the small steep hillsides where farm machinery, or even horses of the usual size, would find it difficult to operate. Since the ponies cannot readily be transported overland because of the mountainous terrain, they sail from farm to farm by the roundabout route of the fiords. Our steamer took on more passengers and loads of grain that had been transported down from the steep farms on an ingenious arrangement of cables.

The next step of our journey, via bus, was almost as precipitous as the grain's. The drivers push over the dangerous narrow winding roads with fearful abandon and unbelievable competence. In these isolated west coast communities, the people consider the bus driver a person of consequence. They entrust him with messages and commissions which he handles with dispatch all along his route, and he obviously deserves his fellow citizens' confidence. Yet we were relieved to find ourselves at the end of the road, at the edge of a lake, and near one of the stations that receives a lake ferry two or three times each day. At the ferry station, we stopped for welcome refreshment; a bowl of oplagt melk, fresh-tart clabbered cream, lightly dusted with cinnamon and brown sugar, and little cakes rich with butter and faintly redolent of cardamom.

We broke our journey by spending the night at Solfonn, in a splendid mountain lodge that perches like an eagle's eyrie on top of the mountain pass. In the keen air of that altitude, appetites become robust and the sight of the groaning koldtbord at breakfast time diverts even French visitors from their customary croissant and café au lait . As for us, we gleefully sampled everything—fruit, smoked fish, half a dozen kinds of salami and sausage, eggs, cheese. whole-grain breads, Danish pastry, and cup after cup of fragrant coffee. Moreover, we could still look forward to a second go at the koltdbord at luncheon. Then, we were assured, it would include hot meats, smoked salmon, shrimps, and lobster, as well as numerous varieties of herring, the famous sill of Norway.

Our gastronomic explorations proved so fruitful that we eagerly anticipated what our next stopover would bring. We planned to spend the night, on the next leg of our journey, at the new, elegant, and infinitely tasteful Brakanes Hotel in Ulvik. The Brakanes stands at the head of the Ulvik Fiord. From oneside, it offers a superb view down the fiord itself. On the other three sides, tall hills rise in spectacular beauty and protect the hotel from the rigors of the climate. In May, when the apple trees are in blossom, the mountains seem to be hung with lacy wedding veils, pink and white against the snow-capped peaks. In September, they told us, the hills glow with yellow plums and red apples, and vacationists walk up the terraced mountainside through fragrant orchards.

At the Brakanes we ate ristet orret, the brown trout of the fiord, marinated briefly in a mixture of oil, vinegar, and fish stock, and sautéed in hot butter to a crisp brown. We have never eaten trout of comparable flavor and firmness of flesh except on our own fishing expeditions, when trout went instantly from lake to frying pan. Our pleasure was enhanced by the sight of the waitresses, who wear the charming intricately decorated Hardanger costume, for at the Brakanes the old customs of the region receive loving observance. We went into the village to see the elaborate wedding dresses of the district, lavishly trimmed with embroidery and silver filigree. These, and the jeweled gold crowns that also form part of the traditional bridal costume, belong to the village, and any Hardanger bride may borrow them. Our waitresses offered bread and cakes in the klingkorg, the wooden basket from which the bride serves homemade cakes to her wedding guests on the second—or even third—day of the festivities. The hotel uses as its symbol three of these crowned brides, one bearing a candelabra, a second the kling-korg, and a third a pitcher.

From Ulvik we proceeded to Bergen, capital of the west coast of Norway, and the northernmost outpost of the famed Hanseatic League. The city, reminiscent of San Francisco, clings to a hill and, like San Franciscans, its hospitable citizens have known generations of good living. Since the days of the Vikings superb silver has been fashioned here, and the local museum has one of the finest collections of rare Chinese porcelains in all of Europe, donated by the local shipowners and captains.

We had dinner with General and Mrs. Roschers-Nielsen; since his retirement from the army the General has been director of tourism for western Norway. In their charming apartment, Mrs. Roschers-Nielsen served us the aristocrat of fishes, a large whole rosy-fleshed salmon, poached in a court-bouillon fragrant with feathery sprays of dill. At the table, the General confessed that one of his proudest possessions was a cowboy shirt. “I got it in a German prison camp during the war,” he explained with a smile. The splendid garment came from a Red Cross package received by a fellow prisoner, a Texan. The General's Red Cross package also included a shirt, an ill-fitting garment from Norway. “I simply told Tex that my shirt arrived as a personal gift from King Haakon, and he begged me to trade with him. So I let him persuade me.”

The following evening, our last in western Norway, brought equally pleasant diversion. We joined one of the folklore tours to which Bergen tourists receive an invitation three nights each week during the summer months. Norwegians greet the visitors with such warmeh that we quickly lost the awkwardness that usually afflicts a large group of ill-assorted tourists. For us, the high point of an enchanting evening came when we had supper in a farmhouse. At the door of the long low dwelling appeared an imposingly handsome man dressed in his native costume, which included knee breeches and white stockings. At his side stood a small blond girl of six, also in charming native costume. When our host had finished his speech of greeting, his arms wide in the age-old gesture of friendly welcome, a stooped ancient played us into the house with a gay country melody, bowed on a twangy fiddle. By the time we had crossed the threshold, we were no longer tourists but honored guests; boys and girls in the national costume invited us to sit down at long community tables. Some of the youngsters passed trays of smorbrod, openfaced sandwiches of sausages and fish; others whirled about in the local dances and invited us to join in the fun. The twanging of the old man's fiddle became progressively more rapid and the dance more active as the evening wore on.

Our young hosts brought us bowls of rommegrot, the buttery porridge which forms a staple of the Norwegian country diet. In this rude climate, people must eat heartily, and Norwegians consume awesome quantities of butter, cream, and cereals. With the porridge we munched flatbrod, another country specialty. This hard chewy bread is so sturdy that in the old days a housewife baked a whole winter's supply at one time.

For dessert we received lefser, small triangular cakes filled with butter and sour cream. Norwegians are justly proud of their baking. The little Norwegian cookbook that we brought home as a souvenir reverses the usual order of recipes and proudly lists the cakes first. Some of the specialties have their counterparts in other countries, such as the thin, crisp fried cakes called fattigmann, named for poor men, although their recipe calls for ten egg yolks and heavy cream. But some, such as the kransekake, or garland cake, are uniquely Norwegian. For this cake, graduated rings of almond meringue are piled pyramid fashion. Zigzag lines of royal icing decorate it. Paper snappers, marzipan flowers and fruits, and petits fours cling to the sides of the cake, fastened with caramel syrup, and at the top flies a tiny Norwegian flag. The kransekake appears at weddings and confirmations throughout Norway.

By the time we finished our lefser and drank lavish quantities of coffee, our visit was at an end. Bergen was our last stop in Norway, and our evening at the farmhouse left us with the most pleasant feelings for the country and its gracious people.