Over the years, I have been fortunate to have visited Norway a few times and also cooked and filmed there. On one occasion, we even stayed at the Ambassador’s residence as we were over there to showcase great British food and regional suppliers.
One thing I have observed about Norwegian food is that it’s very clean and simple. By that, I mean good quality produce, prepared, cooked and served without too much fuss. Salted then dried fish and meat are the bedrock of Norwegian cuisine, and you will find pretty much all Norwegian restaurants serving dishes that involve these base ingredients.
When I was there recently, there just happened to be a Saturday food market in the centre of town, and I was genuinely surprised at the variety of foods available. Dried salted cod and whitefish, along with salted air-dried legs of hogget called Fenalar, were being snapped up by the locals. I enquired about the lamb, and the lady told me that the meat was salted then dried for up to 4 months. She deftly cut a very thin slice for me to try. Once you get past the salty kick, the meat is very smooth and has more of a mutton fat flavour. It really wasn’t what I was expecting. However, the after taste of the fat did linger quite a while after.
There were a few local cheeses but not much to shout about, and the pancake stall was making a roaring trade. Just as we were setting off, there was a small stall selling salami and more dried meats. The man tried to sell me a pack of 3, reindeer, pork, I think and whale! Mmm, I know what your thinking. I enquired which species of whale it was made from, and he told me Minky. I think it’s best I leave that right there.
We had a late breakfast at a restaurant called Café Opera. The coffee was excellent, and I have to say every coffee I had was superb; they really love their coffee here and pay great attention to it. The menu was short and straight to the point, omelettes and sandwiches, plus a sort of mulligatawny soup made with chicken. This was full of flavour and quite spicy. My open smoked fish omelette was fine, if not overcooked, plus I ordered a spiced chicken sandwich that really consisted of 2 flatbreads with some chicken mayo and lettuce. One thing I did find was the bread here are very good indeed and every restaurant we went to served top quality and variety.
The Norwegians do have a sweet tooth, and the few bakeries I looked in did sell a lovely array of sticky buns, cakes and biscuits. I was tempted to try a Skoleboller, a sort of baked sweet doughnut filled with custard and rolled in desiccated coconut with another superb coffee, and it was very nice.
That evening I booked into Dr Wiesener, one of Bergen’s well-known restaurants. It took a bit of time to find it, but we found it after a bit of a hike. It’s really a horseshoe-shaped bar, with few Formica tables and a separate room. The staff are great and very attentive and explained the concise menu for us, only 12 dishes in total. Unfortunately, by the time we had arrived, most of the menu had changed as they had been busy.
I wanted the air-dried lamb salad, but that had been substituted with veal tonnato, which was fine, if not a little overdressed. The fish of the day had been some huge chargrilled langoustine, wow!!! No wonder they had sold out, which was replaced with pan-fried trout and boiled potatoes, so I went for that. But, again, it was fine with no frills. My wife had braised veal, which was superb; I did get a little bit of plate envy… We finished with a plate of cheese, sadly no Norwegian cheese insight. The gorgonzola was pretty good, though.
The next day, we had brunch in another of Bergen’s well-known places, Pingvinen, rated highly by the locals. Again the menu was pretty short and straight to the point. Again, local dishes feature heavily, served without fuss.
I was quite tempted by the Norwegian cheeses, but not for an early lunch. My wife wanted the Lapskaus, a rustic smoked pork stew, but sadly it wasn’t ready, so she went for the cauliflower soup, which was fine if not a little watery. I again had the Fenalar with potato salad, simple and straight to the point, livened up with a nice smattering of dill.
The main course was the perennial favourite Plutfisk, Atlantic dried salt cod cooked with mashed potatoes, crisp chunks of bacon and a very thin flatbread. This was very comforting, packed full of flavour and totally delicious, probably my favourite dish I have eaten on this trip. Other dishes I did want to sample were deer neck with beetroot and lamb and liver sausages, next time.
If you like simple, well-cooked, fairly unadventurous food, then Bergen will not disappoint. In fairness, I didn’t go to ‘top end’ restaurants, I didn’t really want to, plus I don’t really think I would have eaten better food from reading some of the local reviews. Like always ‘you pays your money and takes your choice’ as my father would say, just be careful it’s rather expensive here.