On Thursday night I got back from Trondheim, which is a city of about 187,000 people 500 km (310 miles) north of Oslo. This trip brought us up to 63° N, and I could feel the difference in the quality of light and the temperature, and it felt a bit like taking a vacation to fall for a few days. Now, I am back in Ås, where the trees have only just started to turn.
Travel + Food + Lodging + Food
We drove up Sunday and, unable to make the whole 7-hour trip without eating waffles, we stopped in the middle of the wind-whipped Dovre plateau for food at a touristy-but-still-cute café.
I got a freshly-ironed sour cream waffle, which was served atop a doily-laden wooden stand—a piece of serveware that I think is exclusively reserved for waffles. It had a proper buttery, lacy top that crunched most pleasingly when I bit into it. Though I could never regret such a choice, I was plagued by a small amount of envy for Åsmund’s order of rømmegrøt, which is a traditional Norwegian dish that is essentially a hot sour cream pudding, served with cinnamon and sugar and topped with butter, which of course instantly melts and fills the pudding’s creamy contours with little golden pools. I’m very thankful for rømmegrøt because it is the answer to my perpetual question of: what would be a socially-acceptable way to eat an entire bowl of sour cream?
Luckily, I didn’t have to wallow in my rømmegrøt–less existence for long, as immediately upon our arrival at Åsmund’s house his mom served us a rømmegrøt-rice pudding, replete with sugar, cinnamon, and butter—for dinner! This country! There was also a side of cured meats, and we were encouraged to mix the two for a salty-sweet combination, which I’m starting to figure out is much appreciated in this country.
We were lucky to have Åsmund in our group; he grew up in, as he calls it, “Trondheim, the most beautiful city in Norway.” It’s situated on a fjord (of course), and there are painted wooden houses perched on the river in town while the neighborhoods climb up the side of the hills on either side.
It was lovely to be staying in a home again, too, and Åsmund’s parents were wonderful hosts, happily plying us with good, strong coffee and a typical Norwegian breakfast every morning. They even let me pick as many berries from their berry bushes as I liked, which is the little known key to my eternal devotion. (They have red currants, as well as a berry I’d never seen before, which was a cross between a gooseberry and a blueberry.)
The Project Work (Lots of Meetings)
But I digress. In Trondheim our assignment was to investigate how to increase the amount of organic food that is consumed in out-of-home kitchens, and for that we were interviewing farmers, restaurateurs, grocers, cafes, food suppliers, consumers, and researchers. As with any ambitious, challenging and creative project, there were ups and downs, but overall I think we had a positively charmed trip.
Monday morning, we had a three-hour meeting with a researcher named Stig who is very involved in anything environmental related in Trondheim, before checking out a newly opened food hall which focuses on regional products. (Highlights included holding a not-very-large vacuum-sealed package of some kind of red meat that cost 900 kroner, which is about $105 dollars. Have I mentioned how expensive the food is in Norway?) I was able to tear myself from gazing longingly as the local cheese and butter case in order to talk to a worker about the challenges they face trying to promote local and/or organic food in Norway. Price was mentioned.
Tuesday morning we interviewed another guy named Stig, who had worked on an oil tanker for many years but now is the head chef at a culinary high school. Then, we visited a kindergarten well-known for having its own beehives, or bee cubes (“bikuben” in Norwegian). We lucked out, because on this particular day there was a film crew doing a segment on the kindergarten’s bee program, and all the kids were either dressed up in homemade bee costumes, or running around in beekeeper outfits. A human child in a small beekeeper costume is unequivocally the cutest thing I’ve ever seen; I had trouble even focusing on our interview because of the adorableness all around me.
Meeting the Right People
We visited a community farm in Trondheim and met with an American man named Daniel who used to run a small organic farm, before reluctantly giving it up for the more lucrative profession of getting a PhD. He had been able to carve out a niche for himself growing a wide variety of vegetables for a new farm-to-table restaurant in town. Having used to live in San Diego, he had very interesting insights about the comparison between the very developed local organic sector of southern California, and the one that is almost nonexistent in mid-Norway. While it’s true that there are some geographic advantages to growing in California, he said that you can actually grow a lot of the same stuff in Norway, too, it’s just that you have to go about it differently, and no one seems to try.
He also told us that the chefs who ran the fancy restaurant he worked for also ran a cafeteria at a research center in town, where, through some outside-the-box thinking, they are able to deliver restaurant-quality food at cheap cafeteria prices. It used to be open to the public, but so many people would come that they had to start requiring a check-in at reception so that only people who worked there, or were guests of people that worked there, were allowed in. Still, he said, people will come knock on the windows to try and get let in through the back. As soon as I learned of this place, I knew that we had to go (for, uh…research purposes.) He gave us the phone number of one of the chefs, but as it was already past working hours, we had to wait until the next morning to call. I fretted all evening about it. However, the next morning we called and were able to secure an interview over lunch at this famous cafeteria. This felt like a real victory to me.
The food was really good, roasted whitefish on a bed of creamed carrots and peas. There was also a dish of bright yellow butter that wasn’t too cold, so it could be easily and amply spread on the homemade rolls. All for less than six dollars. This would be a good deal in most western countries, but having been in Norway for a month a half, where a single avocado costs $3, I just couldn’t get over it. (Side note: I haven’t eaten avocado in over a month and a half.)
Free Food? In Norway?
At this point in the trip, I was just glowing. Such luck! Such interesting, generous people taking the time to talk to us! But to cap it all off, we found out that all those food suppliers and distributors that we’d heard about from the grocers and restaurateurs, they were all at the some sort of Mid-Norway Food Supplier and Distributor Trade Show. So we went, got nametags that said we were from NMBU, and started to ask around.
After a disastrous first attempt at a group interview, in which we managed to somehow greatly insult a company that we all had a lot of respect for and were trying to compliment, we decided to split up and approach it more casually. I walked around with Isabeau, my French teammate, which I loved because we have an equal love and appreciation for food. At the first stall we visited, the man wasn’t interested in talking to us about the food system, but was very interested in giving us free ice cream, and so we acquiesced (was this place for real?) After polishing off my two scoops of hazelnut and caramel, Isabeau pulled us over to the stall that was promoting insect protein, where, out of politeness, I was then obliged to eat insect-crackers, as well as fried larvae and crickets. Goddammit, Isabeau. The lingering sweetness of ice cream was abruptly forced out by the acrid taste of bugs.
From there, we ping-ponged around and ate a bizarre progression of cakes then fish, brownies then vegetables. At one point, I accidentally ate whale. After a grueling hour and a half of schmoozing, in which we really did make some good contacts, we made like the Norwegians and ended our workday at 4, heading over to the wine and beer room. I visited the stall of a microbrewery from Lofoten, which was interesting to me not only because I’m dying to go to what looks like the most beautiful place on the planet, but also because the CEO was quite handsome and pouring me free beer. The next stall over welcomed me with champagne and French oysters, which I happily slurped down.
Yes, it was all in a hard day’s work. Afterwards, we went to a nearby farm to interview and organic farmer about her experience supplying the city of Trondheim. We also harvested some onions for her, which is the sort of thing that's fun in small doses.
To cap off an awesome day, we cashed in on our invite from the University to go to their cabin in the forest (everyone in Norway seems to have a cabin in the forest.) We parked and, after a five-minute walk through the misty pine forest, reached what would be more accurately described as a hunting lodge than a cabin. The main room had long wooden tables set up under strong wooden beams.
Inside the light was toasty warm, but outside the blue mist had overtaken the view of Trondheim almost completely. There were only a few other people there, and we paid not even $10 for unlimited family style food, the theme of which on this night was German. Afterward, the Irish chef came and sat with us and told us how he came to be the sole chef at a forest cabin in Norway—I'd recap it here but it was a rather long story.
We go back to Trondheim in November for the second part of our project. Now, I’m back in Ås and trying to squeeze as much time outside as possible before we enter the Nordic winter!