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.