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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.
Europe, Food Porn, France, global cuisine, Paris, Travel, Uncategorized

Food Porn : Three Days of Gourmet Decadence In The City Of Light

After Iceland, I head to England for a few days to visit family and decompress. I am Morocco-bound next, so some time with family and friends, hot showers and clean beds are all welcomed. Back in the Summer I had found a “too good to pass up” flight from London to Paris, so I decided then to make a pit stop in Paris en route to Morocco. Paris is one of those cities that draws me back again and again, and I have a good travel buddy I owe a visit to. Ticket in hand, I am dropped off at Luton airport by a friend, and make my way to check in. Less than two hours later, I arrive at Charles d e Gaulle airport. My dear friend Marty is there to meet me, and we head straight to the city center.

We arrive at Bar Rota in the 11th arrondissement around 7:30 and plant ourselves, and my two backpacks, at a table next to floor to ceiling windows. The ambiance is so quintessentially Paris, you couldn’t script it better. Tea lights flicker on each of the six wooden tables, worn wooden bar stools line a dusty floor, effortlessly stylish friends sip their after work wine, and a couple so crazy about each other can’t keep their tongues out of each other’s mouths. Ah, Paris… it’s just so romantic.

The spread at Rota Bar

Marty ventures to the bar to take care of the business at hand. He comes back and informs me wine, cheese, charcuterie and bread are all on their way to us. It is a Wednesday night, and the crowd thickens as we lose track of time, catching up on the events of the two years that have passed since we traveled Southeast Asia together. Another hour passes, another bottle of wine is ordered. We run out of bread and a kind older patron who overhears us asking for more, brings a box of crackers over to our table. The restaurant has run out.

The next thing we know, it is 2 am, and Bar Rota is shutting down for the night. The only people left are us and the kissing couple. They bid us farewell, as we put on our coats and clumsily heave my bags from the floor. It is time to make the journey home.

One thing Paris is not known for is an efficient after-hours public transport system. We have to make it to Orgeval, a good 30 kilometers from Paris’ city center. A taxi is out of the question due to cost, so we make our way to the bus station at Les Halles, and take a bus headed to Orgeval. Marty informs me that we have a trek the other end, but that he will try to convince the driver to let us off at an unofficial stop en-route. That would mean a 20-minute walk as opposed to having to hitch hike from a farther stop. Luckily, Marty’s kind disposition wins the bus driver over, and he shakes me awake at 3:45 a.m. saying, “Hurry! He’s going to stop for us.” We walk the next 20 minutes in a comatose state to his home.  I never curse staying for the second bottle of wine. In fact, in hindsight, the walk may have been easier because of it. We crawl into bed around 4:15am.

I awake early and will myself to go back to sleep, but I am not winning this game, so I head down to the kitchen for a coffee. It feels like we are ages away from the bustling city streets we had walked last night. The view outside Marty’s kitchen window is of an apple orchard, and farm land that stretches on for miles. I let out a deep breath and think I would be okay soaking in this view for the next few days, and I’m not worried if we make it back to Paris or not.

Confit de Canard

Marty joins me in the kitchen about an hour later, fires up the espresso machine, aka the “George Clooney” (thank you, French advertising) and we make plans for the day. Since it is already late morning, we decide to save Paris for another day. What we need now is some grease to soak up the excess red wine still lingering in our systems. Marty decides the best cure is Confit de Canard with Salardaises (translation- duck cooked in its own fat, with thinly sliced potatoes, also fried in the duck fat). I sit watching as he chops potatoes and removes the duck from a tin of hardened fat. I think of how sinful it seems to be eating something so rich for…breakfast? If there’s one thing the French know and do well, it’s indulgence. Especially when it comes to food.

Marty lays two places at the table and presents my confit de canard, and then, oh so, absentmindedly reaches for a box of red wine sitting nearby. He says nothing, but just looks at me and raises an eyebrow, as if to say, “Are you in?” My initial reaction is “God, no.” But I am eating duck for breakfast after all, so to hell with it. “Yes, please,” comes out my mouth. I ask Marty if he likes to cook. He says, “No,” quickly and affirmatively. I tell him he is good at it regardless. He looks at me and replies, “I’m French.” I have to laugh at this arrogant comment coming from my far from arrogant friend.

Marty’s father stops in on his lunch break and has a quick espresso, comments on the smell of duck that has permeated the house and asks us our plans for the afternoon. Marty explains our plans to go mountain biking through the farmland behind his house. His father looks at me and says in English, but with a thick French accent, “Thees is very ambiteuse, eespecially after confit du canard.” I couldn’t agree more.

But it is what we do… We bike through apple orchards, protected forests, winding village lanes, circling back to the center of town to pick up some things for dinner. This consists of three slabs of cheese. I am beginning to panic. (At least there was a bike ride?)

We head home and set out cheese, bread and a salad, pour wine and relax. Tomorrow, we hit Paris.

The second morning starts much like the first, with espresso, but no Confit de Canard. We head to Paris and have a cafe au lait and croissant near Notre Dame. We circle the cathedral, and dodge the hoards of tourists. I think back to my first trip to Paris- 1997, 16 years old, high-school spring break. It was most likely at this precise moment and physical place that I discovered I love to travel, that I knew I connected with something deep inside my heart that made me want to go, learn, and see more beyond my familiar world… yes, it was on this same gravel, outside Notre Dame Cathedral, 15 years prior, in Gap jeans, a white long john tee shirt and Adidas running shoes.  I have a moment where I feel like I’ve come full circle. (Except, I hope I dress better now.)

Pont des Arts

We walk up the Seine to Pont Des Arts, a bridge famous for its legend surrounding everlasting love. Apparently, the rumor used to be that if you thought of the person you loved as you crossed the bridge, or sailed beneath it, you would be with that person forever. I remember, at 16, thinking of Laurent, the lovely tour guide we had during our week-long trip, as we sailed below the bridge on our bateaux-mouche. Today the legend remains the same, but the bridge has been made even more famous by the thousands of locks that adorn the fences on either side, put there by lovers, partners, husbands, wives and best friends over the years.

From Pont des Arts, we head towards St. Germain and the Latin Quarter. Marty is in search of a famous macaroon shop. I’m wondering how I will eat any more food without dire consequences and am more preoccupied with finding the school where I studied French Art & Literature during my junior year abroad. We find the macaroon shop and debate for ages about which flavors we will buy. Each macaroon is like a little piece of art, and there are too many to choose from. We settle on pistachio, creme caramel, coffee and hazelnut. We walk parallel to Les Jardins de Luxembourg, and in the distance, I see the Foyer des Etudiants International, 93 Boulevard St Germain. Next door is the same cafe that was there in 2000, our meeting point before class. Memories of Matisse, Picasso and Camus come flooding back.

We walk over to the gardens, pull up two green chairs in front of the fountain and begin our macaroon sampling. We’re selective in the order in which we enjoy these treats, starting with the ones we think we’ll like least– as if it’s even possible to dislike any of them. We savor each bite and force each other to take the last nibble. Most of the time, it’s smaller than a crumb. Marty drops part of the creme caramel one on the ground, and quickly retrieves it (the 5-second rule is in effect.) I have no words to describe how decadent and rich these treats are. To say I’m glad we sought out the macaroon shop is an understatement.

Le Village’s charcuterie plate

We sit in silence soaking in the warmth of the sun before finding the motivation to begin walking again. When we do, we loop back to Pont des Arts and head northwest to The Louvre and The Tuileries Garden. The Eifel Tower sits in the distance, but we bypass La Tour and hop on the metro to Montmartre. When we arrive, it’s pouring, so we decide it’s late enough in the day to duck into a cafe for a glass of wine. We find Le Village, and decide we should probably have something to eat as well. Marty’s friends are coming to the house for dinner later, so we settle on splitting a light charcuterie plate !

We while away a couple of hours here, sipping red wine, people watching and letting the rain pass. I imagine what life would be like if I lived in Paris, what I would do for work, which arrondissement I would live in, where my local cafe would be. My daydreaming is cut short. We have to catch a train back to Orgeval. We settle up at Le Village, and make our way back to the train station. We miss our train, but find a local cafe for a quick espresso while we wait for the next one.

Raclette, chez Marty.

Back in Orgeval, we are collected at the station by Marty’s friends. We head to his home and begin preparing Raclette. Now, I know Raclette is a type of cheese, but I do not know about the elaborate dish prepared using this cheese. Again, I am about to be schooled in French cuisine. Drinks are poured, and water is boiled for the potatoes. Charcuterie is arranged on platters- prosciutto, pepperoni, salami, parma, just to name a few. And the Raclette is sliced. A grill-like contraption is placed in the middle of the table, and each person is given a metal spatula to heat their cheese on. We dig in, and don’t stop. Boiled potatoes are mashed or sliced, depending on your preference, and warm Raclette is drizzled over the potatoes and charcuterie. When anyone slows down or shows signs of filling up, guests at the table take turns feigning dismay and make comments like, “you are not giving up yet, are you?” I am surely entering a food coma, although at this point in time, I’m not sure if I have even managed to escape one since arriving in Paris.

My thoughts return to Iceland- a beautiful place, but one which lacked any major culinary highlights. I convince myself three days of pure indulgence here will only make up for the lack of food consumed during my week there. I think ahead to Morocco- tagines, couscous, olives, lamb, pastilla, BREAD. And then I justify it all, by remembering what a wise person once told me, “As a traveler, you never know where you will get your next meal.” I’m thankfully full when the plates are cleared, and I’m profoundly more thankful that everyone seems to have forgotten about the flan we were supposed to have for dessert. I cannot eat another bite.

Marty and his friends have been such gracious hosts. I am sad this short trip has come to an end, but I’m thinking if I stay any longer, I’ll have to start spending my dwindling travel budget on Moroccan palazzos. Still, if there is one way to truly understand a culture, it’s to immerse yourself in the cuisine and the traditions surrounding it. These three days in Paris have been a success in that regard. But how can you fail in France? If anyone knows how to celebrate and enjoy food, it’s the French.

At the end of the evening, I pack up my things and prepare for an early morning jaunt back to Charles de Gaulle… I am full, happily reacquainted with a dear friend, and now, bound for Morocco.