Bergen, fish market, global cuisine, Norway

Bergen: An Introduction to Norway’s Cuisine

“There’s no bad weather in Bergen, just bad clothes,” says the lady at reception at Bergen’s YMCA hostel. Apparently they’re used to wet weather here, so I grab my raincoat and head out to explore this seaside city despite wet and cool conditions. First stop: the fish market. It’s late morning, so I decide to work up an appetite touring the stalls of this waterside market. I take cover from the rain under large canopies housing seafood displays up front and makeshift restaurants behind.

Steaming mussels on a cold, wet Summer day.

Free samples abound, and in a matter of minutes, I have sampled smoked salmon, mussels, fish soup and another dark fish I don’t know the name of. “What is this?,” I ask the young Japanese girl working the stall. “Wild,” I hear her reply. “Wild what?” I reply, wondering if there’s some kind of dark, wild salmon swimming in these waters.” “Whale,” she repeats and looks at me to see if I understand.” Oh, I’ve just eaten whale… and I liked it. “What kind of whale?” I ask. She replies, “The kind you can eat.” I smile to myself and decide to ask the next vendor what I’ve just consumed.

Smoked Salmon and Minke Whale samples.

At the next stall, I see the dark slabs of meat, and a funny youngster informs me it’s Minke whale. “His name was Willy,” she says, and laughs. I laugh, but I’m conflicted. It’s whale after all, but the mild, meaty taste is delicious.

Any living creature found swimming in the waters off Norway’s coast is for sale at this market: prawns, lobster, caviar, and my favorite, oysters. But at $8 an oyster, it’s something I won’t be sampling today. I purchase a small fish cake for 20 Norwegian Kronor (about $3.50) and continue my culinary journey. At the end of the fish stalls are some treats from the land: I see rolled up sticks of  reindeer, moose and whale meat, all smoked and all delicious. The meat is reminiscent of soppressata – ranging from mild to strong in flavor.

The Lamb Man

Continuing on, I visit the “Lamb Man,” who serves me three types of lamb: the first is salted and smoked. It’s got a strong flavor, but it’s enjoyable and would taste wonderful in a sandwich with strong mustard. I mention this to the “lamb man,” and he points to his colleague, who is creating this sandwich as we speak. The second lamb is cooked, and it brings me back to my mother’s New Year’s Day dinners. The flavor is so distinct that when I close my eyes, I’m sitting at the dinner table with a plate of roast lamb, roast vegetables and a jar of mint sauce in front of me. The last sample is simply salted and the taste is strong and hard for me to swallow. I hate to offend, so I eat as much as I can and thank the “lamb man” for his generous samples. I head to the next table and I’m greeted with cheese and honey. I’m thankful to be able to cleanse the palate.

Geitost, or brown cheese.

I spot brown cheese and decide to start here. I discovered this specific cheese years ago at a wine bar in new York City… a sweet substance that’s more like caramel than cheese. I’ve found it for sale at a few farmer’s markets since, but didn’t realize this is where it hails from. Geitost is its name, and I savor a couple of small slices. I learn from the man working the stall, that this is not actually a cheese at all, but made from the water and liquid that is boiled off of goat cheese while it is being made. Add brown sugar and you get brown “cheese”. It is rich and sweet and come to find out, a very important ingredient in many Norwegian snacks. The geitost is followed by two goat cheeses – one young, one old. They help me digest the lamb samples, and I make my way over to a table full of local honey samples. Consider this dessert! I sample three different types of honey- dandelion, raspberry and heather. The heather honey is sweet, thick and rich, and the kind man working the stall is telling me it’s small enough to pack in my carry on with no problems. This is Norway, and I’ve already learned that everything will cost me at least three or four times what I am used to, but I part with the $8 for a 3 oz. jar and hope it will survive the next few months in my backpack.

Bryggen- The colorful wooden homes of Bergen’s waterfront.

Despite the light rain, Bergen’s waterfront is still colorful and inviting. I walk over to Bryggen, a collection of old wooden houses dating back to the Hanseatic period. While Bergen’s roots can be traced back to 1070, parts of the houses original construction  date back to the 1500s. This area was the most important spot for fish trading from the 14th to 16th century, and these old houses were owned by merchants who used them for storing fish and other dried goods. Despite a number of fires over the years, efforts have been made to rebuild the area to a strict historical code, and in 1979, Bryggen became a UNESCO World Heritage sight.

High wind has joined the rain now, and despite having a raincoat, I duck into a cafe and hope this will pass. No less than an hour later, the weather is clearing up a bit, and dare I say, I see some rays of sunlight. I am at the foot of the funicular but opt to take the walking path up for panoramic views of Bergen below. Forty-five minutes later, a cloudy Bergen sprawls out below. The sunlight was short lived, but the hike up has afforded me views of this city’s sprawl and the ability to walk off some of the morning’s indulgences. Tomorrow I head north to smaller cities, and hopefully better weather…

The view of Bergen from above.
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