Fish Balls, Brown Cheese, Reindeer & Roast Whale: A Foodie’s Time in Vikingland
Welcome to Norway. Now let’s go eat fish balls, Jarle said. My instinct to resist having been left behind in America, I smiled and got in the car.
“Am I about to eat fish testicles?” I thought to myself, as we drove up the mountain.
“Was my preparatory research on this country so inadequate that I’m now being blindsided by the fact that fish genitals are a delicacy?” I subdued the first inkling of stomach unease, and contemplate my culinary fate for the rest of the drive.
It was just before Thanksgiving when I decided I’d go to Norway with my girlfriend, Ida. The travel bug infected me with an itch years ago, but it wasn’t until this opportunity arose that I’d be able to scratch it.
The notion of so many new experiences excited me. New kinds of scenery, new kinds of people; new sounds, new smells, new tastes. That last one was particularly alluring. The decision to try every food presented to me was an easy one, but more important was the decision that I’d try to enjoy them all as well.
On December 16, after twenty days of planning and nearly as many minutes of packing, we ventured forth. The three hour drive to the Dallas airport went by in a blink.
From Dallas we’re flown across the Atlantic to London; from London up north to Oslo, the capital and largest city in Nor—WOW there is a lot of snow here. I stepped out of the plane and into a Hallmark Christmas card.
I’m shocked and thrilled by the beauty, and the feeling doesn’t wear off for at least three days.
One of our hosts, Morten, picked us up from the airport. We drove through the snowy night to the apartment he shares with his wife, Christin.
Sleep came easily.
The first morning, breakfast consisted of toast with butter, and a spread Morten said was made from tomato paste and fish. This is my first big test. I make two, and as I inch the first piece towards my mouth, I command my tongue to enjoy what it’s about to taste.
My tongue finds the assignment to be quite easy. It’s actually kind of sweet, with a little bit of tang. This stuff is damn good. I finish both pieces of toast, slam back some coffee, and we make our way to downtown Oslo.
Christmas here rivals Christmas in New York City— anyone who’s seen the Big Apple during the holiday season knows that’s saying a lot. They’re different, though. New York City glitters and dazzles with an exciting, jazzy warmth.
Oslo is less flamboyant, but the magic wasn’t synthesized in the last couple centuries. It’s much older than that. Oslo’s Yuletide magic has been shaping this place for millennia. It’s a peaceful, steadfast kind of holiday spirit. Nordic, through and through.
Still, Norway is not immune to Christmas consumerism. I do a little shopping while exploring Oslo, mostly to shore up my wholly inadequate cold-weather gear. After a few hours, I’m ready for a break and a caffeine recharge. Lo and behold, there’s a Starbucks right around the corner.
Giving my feet a rest, I surveyed my surroundings. I recognized a store or two, but most of the shop names are unfamiliar to me. An electronic billboard catches my eye as its display changes: “Pumpkin Spice Cod.”
My eyes glazed over, my palms began to sweat. My subconscious screeched in horror, and my appetite calmly began to perform seppuku.
Thankfully, that abomination of a dish was never offered to me. I escaped near-certain psychological scarring.
Exploration accomplished, we headed back to the apartment for dinner. Christin has prepared “fatfish,” with potatoes and carrots. Morten told me that “fatfish” is what Norwegians call halibut.
I have lived nearly my whole life opposed to eating seafood. Only in the last two years have I begun to will my palette to change. Still, seafood is never my first choice. Until Norway.
I’ve tried halibut before, at relatively high-end restaurants in America. It’s tasted good enough, but still wasn’t something I’d actively seek out. The halibut I eat with Morten and Christin, however, is delicious.
It’s so simple, too. It’s just the cut of fish, with a little onion-butter drizzled over top—that’s it. I eat three helpings.
Getting up from the table, I smile and offer the customary “Takk for mat!” (Norwegian for “Thanks for the food!”). I mean it wholeheartedly, too. They’re so thrilled I liked it they insist on having coffee and dessert before bed. We have cloudberry cream and cookies.
Cloudberry cream is a light, airy whip with sweet, orange-yellow cloudberries all throughout. It’s eaten on lightly sweet, flaky cone-shaped cookies. The cookies barely need to be bitten into before they break off into your mouth. The whole thing put together is decadent, without being rich or heavy anord overwhelming the palette. It is an extraordinary end to the day.
After three days, our stay in Oslo reaches its end. Next on the agenda: Trondheim, one of Norway’s oldest cities and a former capital of the country. Trondheim is much farther north than Oslo, and we’ll be getting there by train.
I didn’t realize how luxurious European trains are. It is a beautiful mode of travel—silky smooth ride, stunning views for the whole five-hour duration, deeply comfortable seats, and a bar car.
For the first few hours while it’s still dark, I feel like I’m riding on the Polar Express—silently gliding across mountains, overlooking snow-covered villages with warm constellations of fire lit windows.
As the train eases to a stop at the Trondheim station, we gather our things back up and step off, making our way to the pickup area. We wait for a few minutes, and soon Ida’s grandfather, Jarle, pulls up in front of us.
Jarle is a retired ship captain. He looks the part. In the twilight of his life, yet still tough and physically fit, he steps out of the car and greets us.
“Welcome to Norway. Now let’s go eat fish balls.”
My resistance left in America, I smiled and got in the car.
“Am I about to eat fish testicles?” I think to myself, as we drive up the mountain. “Was my preparatory research on this country so inadequate I’m now being blindsided by the fact that fish genitals are a delicacy?” I subdued the first inkling of stomach unease, and contemplate my culinary fate for the rest of the drive.
As it turns out, fish balls aren’t the marine equivalent of Rocky Mountain oysters. Think of chicken and dumplings, only there’s no chicken and the dumplings are made with fish mixed into the dough. Otherwise, it’s nearly the same thing – similar texture, similar white gravy.
It’s delicious. I’m both relieved and disappointed, though. Relieved the meal I’ve been served is so agreeable to my tastes, but disappointed it’s less exotic than what I’d imagined in the car. Regardless, I go to bed satiated and happy.
I woke up to a knock on the bedroom door. Ida’s grandmother announced that breakfast is ready. Walking into the dining room, I’m greeted with a smorgasbord.
For the record: Norwegian breakfast kicks ass.
The meal is an hour-long game of experimentation, where the results are always delicious.
Jarlsberg cheese and smoked, cured salmon? To die for.
Toast, mayo, and caviar? Sinful.
Bread, butter, sweet brown cheese and raspberry jam? Yeah, just go ahead and shoot that straight into my veins please.
From that morning on, brown cheese is my addiction. I eat it every breakfast, every day for the rest of my stay in the country. On bread, toasted or not, with or without butter, covered in raspberry jam, orange marmalade, or anything fruity and colorful.
Eventually Christmas rolls around. For dinner that night we have huge meatballs with brown gravy. Dessert was the real showstopper, though: creamy rice pudding with red sauce, all homemade.
Like cloudberry cream and cookies, this dessert is absolutely perfect in its lightness and subtlety. The rice pudding is lightly sweet, and creamy with soft chunks. I’m directed to drizzle red sauce (it’s closer to pink than red) over the rice pudding. It’s like a thin syrup made from berries. I’m forced to employ the full extent of my self-control to keep from gobbling up the whole bowl.
This meal deserved an extra level of appreciation, so upon getting up from the table I offer Ida’s grandmother my most reverent, “Tussen takk for mat!” (“Tussen takk” translates to “a thousand thanks,” the Norwegian equivalent of “thank you very much”).
A few days after Christmas, we’re due to embark on the next leg of this Norwegian adventure: we are going even farther north—past the Arctic Circle—to the town of Bodo, where Ida’s aunt and uncle live.
Mode of travel: Nordic cruise ship.
It’s a 24-hour voyage aboard the Hurtigruten cruise liner (“Hurtig” means “quick”, “ruten” means “routes”). It’s luxurious.
I feel like I’m on the Titanic.
Our cruise takes off from Trondheim on December 31. That night, we go to dinner at the ship’s fine-dining restaurant. The main course is reindeer.
On the first bite, my inner five year-old feels a twinge of guilt that I’m eating Rudolph, or one of his relatives. It quickly passes, with a sip of cabernet.
My outer twenty-eight year-old doesn’t take long to find a suitable justification in eating a nursery-rhyme character. If Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer didn’t want me to eat him, he should’ve thought twice about being so delicious.
Later that night as midnight strikes, I ring in the new year with a champagne toast from the comfort of a jacuzzi on the top deck. The view of the fireworks is great, but the scene of jagged, glacier-carved fjords illuminated by colorful pyrotechnic explosions is even better.
Ida’s aunt and uncle quickly become my favorite Norwegians. Cato, her uncle, picks us up as we disembark from the ship. His English is close to flawless.
The car ride to their house is about about two hours, and we talk for most of the drive. Cato is funny. His sense of humor is sharp, dry, dark, and relentless. He also curses casually and often.
“Yes, in Norway, the farther north, the more colorful the language,” Cato told me. “My wife and I went to church one Sunday, and in Sunday school the teacher said, ‘Anybody who curses, they should have a big rock tied to their neck and be thrown into the ocean.’ Thinking about it later, I thought, ‘If we did that here, we would run out of rocks.’”
After almost the full two hours of driving in the middle of what seems to be a blizzard, Cato mentioned offhandedly, “This car’s brakes don’t really work after ten or fifteen minutes, usually.”
I’m taken aback. Just to be sure, I double-check my seat belt and begin to tighten my grip on the arm rest. The car beeps.
“Yep. There they go,” he said.
Apparently not having brakes in a blizzard isn’t a big deal in Norway, because we make it home without incident. Cato introduces me to his wife, Sissel.
Sissel breaks the Nordic mold—always smiling; she unleashes laughter upon the world with joyful explosions of merriment.
The two of them live right in the center of a stunning fjord. Jagged, snow capped mountains all but trap a circle of ocean—like the teeth of an ancient dragon greedily clutching a massive sapphire. The view puts Hallmark cards to shame.
Gaze into the ocean, and imagine how frigid its water must be; then turn to the cluster of houses between the water and the mountains and tell your mind to now go to the warm fires and fur-draped sofas that surely lie within. At times, the contrast of dark rocky outcroppings are the only clue as to where the snowy mountaintops end and the thick, white sky begins.
We settle into the guest room, and Cato informs me for dinner tonight I will be eating whale meat.
It’s presented to me in a stew. Before digging in, he reassures me that it’s perfectly legal in Norway to eat whale, though admittedly not the most politically popular practice. I set aside my moral objections, and in an effort not to offend my gracious hosts, I take the first bite.
Don’t tell anyone, but whale is absolutely delicious. If it wasn’t so dark in color, you’d think you were eating beef. I’m told the preparation process is more intense, though. Unless you have the jaw muscles of a hyena, you’re gonna need to tenderize the hell out of it.
The meal was, once again, excellent, and though my moral compass feels a moment of confusion as to the direction of true north, my traveller’s instincts are satisfied by the exotic experience. I sleep like a baby that night.
This vacation is now nearing its close, and I’m down to my last breakfast in Norway. Once again, the breakfast spread is a cornucopia of culinary delightfulness. After several helpings, I’ve almost had my fill. The meal has lasted quite a while, and I’m beginning to get restless but I don’t want to be rude and be the first one getting up from the table.
The last two pieces of bread lay unclaimed for a few minutes, and I contemplate eating them in order to end the meal by default. Again, though: I don’t want to be rude. I’m relieved when Cato grabs one of the two, allowing me to take the last without seeming like a greedy ravenous American capitalist pig.
So, the last piece. What do I do with it? I’ve already tried nearly every combination of spreads and toppings at least thrice, except for one. It’s a creamy pink spread, with red pieces scattered throughout. It looks like some kind of yogurt with small cubes of red jello. Cool. The look alone guarantees I’ll like it, and I figure it’s gonna go really nicely with a few slices of sweet, sweet delicious brown cheese.
Sissel gives the combination a weird look, but I plow right ahead. Yeah, maybe it’s typical that I’d combine the two sweetest options on the table, but that doesn’t discourage me. First bite: not what I was expecting, but the back-end is heavy on the brown cheese, so I figure it’s a pretty good combo.
Second bite: Hmm…something isn’t quite right. This is not tasting how it looks. The third bite is downright awful, now that I’m focusing on the foreign flavor invading my palette. I take a closer look at the packaging, and my mind shrieks with revulsion.
Imagine taking a huge bite of the most delicious-looking cheesecake you’ve ever seen, only after you’ve begun to chew you’re told the main ingredient in this one is a turnip-asparagus puree.
It’s beets. Red beets. I’m eating red beets. In a pink cream spread. With what amounts to dessert cheese. It was purely through white-knuckle force of will that I suppressed my gag reflex. Just the memory makes my stomach uneasy.
Now I know why Sissel gave me that look. Why didn’t I heed it? Why did I have to be so damn headstrong?
A line from my dad plays in my head, “Well son, if yer’ ignorant, ya’ gotta be tough.”
I had definitely been ignorant, and now it was time to be tough. I finish the whole thing, very much to my stomach’s loathsome chagrin—poker face maintained perfectly the whole time (you’d boast, too, believe me).
My last twenty-four hours in Norway are a regrettable blur of digestive unease. As I board the plane, I find it in my heart to forgive the country and all its mostly decent people for subjecting me to that short but intense torture session.
I wash that memory away with the thoughts of all the good times I had, and all the great things I was able to eat and drink, smell, see, and hear.
Upon stepping foot in Texas, I find the nearest What-a-Burger and order a large with extra bacon.