Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The *sweet* taste of success

I want a log cabin.

A modest Norwegian log cabin of course, heaven forfend none of those plush Alpine chalets. Just a quaint log cabin with a few basic amenities: workable kitchen, a fireplace and a sauna. Moose antlers to grace the front door, a polar bear rug on the floor and a few choice pieces of vintage Norwegian furniture to lend the cabin authenticity. There will be books scattered all over the place, and comics, lots of old comics. Under-floor cable heating installed throughout the cabin will mean I can scamper around barefoot from sauna to kitchen, foregoing the thermal and fleece socks I've been wearing all winter back in London. A requisite fat sofa will sit in front of a window with a magnificent panoramic view of the local fjord, the surrounding forest and the little woodpecker nest hidden in the nearest tree.

In this cabin I'll retreat from the world, read books and comics, drink aquavit, and take in the breathtaking vista of my fatherland, all whilst having exceptionally warm feet.

There's only one problem.

In order not to be lynched by the locals I need to ski. It's no good retreating to a cabin in Norway and not ski. Norwegians are fierce ski enthusiasts and some wise scribe once irritatingly claimed we Norwegians are all born on skis, suggesting we're pre-destined to be superhuman skiers. My parents met when dad was a ski instructor in Breckenridge and mama johansen was a voluptuous snowbunny, so I had no choice but to ski from a young age:

Snowbunny junior ca.1984

But there is a grain of truth in the notion that we're born to ski: one of my earliest memories is of dad holding me carefully as we skied slowly down gentle slopes in Oslo. From the age of five I was racing both cross-country and downhill in the local Tomm Murstad ski school. It was practically the law. Back in the '80s there were no plump Norwegian children playing on their playstations. We were all skiing six months of the year, eating wholesome sandwiches, fruit and the requisite kvikk-lunsj (akin to a kit-kat but somehow cannily marketed as an essential foodstuff for skiers). It was the Norwegian Ideal and a perfect parenting strategy: expose children to crisp winter air all day and total exhaustion will render us sweet and placid.

Living on top of a mountain in Oslo, our house was near a ski jump called Holmenkollen where the winter olympics were held in 1952. As I was musing on the abovementtioned log cabin fantasy I discovered the beloved Holmenkollen ski jump of my childhood had recently been renovated:

Yowzers. The world's fastest ski jump on your door step. Times have changed.

While I watched the winter games last week it occurred to me how spoilt we are in Norway: you walk out the door, put on your skis and simply set off into the wilderness for a day's cross-country, or head for the nearest slope to go downhill. The easy access to nature and great ski terrain is a constant reminder of how achingly beautiful Norway really is, thus making die-hard patriots of us all. Despite my better instincts I get pangs of nostalgia when I think of Nordmarka, the national park behind our house, and of course Holmenkollen.

Being contrarian I decided at a young age that downhill was for adrenaline junkies, and adrenaline junkies who are co-ordinated at that. With cross-country you have time to absorb your surroundings and it also means you're less likely to ski into a tree, as I was prone to with downhill. As you might imagine, this didn't go down so well with the parents. Dad's visions of my becoming an olympic downhill champion were shattered, and to this day he still ribs me about my dislike of downhill. Sadly I haven't skied cross-country with any regularity since moving to the UK ten years ago. For shame!

Norway goes bananas during the winter olympics, and as I watched the games I found myself thinking the following:

1) I need a log cabin

2) I need to swallow my fear and start downhill skiing again

3) why the frack is Norway always doing do well in the winter olympics?

Canada with their 14 gold medals may have reigned supreme on home soil, but Norway had its moments of owning the podium, matching that sporting colossus the U.S. with 9 gold medals. We're talking about a nation of 4.7 million people versus 300 million in the U.S.

For a time last week the most read article on the Wall Street Journal was one which asked the same question, what lay behind Norway's success in the games? I suspect the reason it was WSJ's most-read feature that day was 4.7 million Norwegians were clicking on it.

Pondering this question I wondered if it might be related to diet. Not the celebrated Nordic Diet, but something specific to Norway. Could it be the large volume of fish we eat? If that were the case, Japan, Iceland, Spain and other piscine-loving nations would surely do just as well as Norway in the winter games. No, that couldn't be it. What about our love of smoked fish and cured meat? A lot of top Norwegian skiers come from the west Norwegian town of Voss, where the local tradition is to serve smoked sheep heads to guests.

No, this wasn't it either. Icelanders eat things like sheep buried in the ground and other weird cured meat. They hardly gained a medal in the winter games.

Then suddenly...Eureka! It struck me as I was nibbling a slice of this:

It must be our geitost, or goat's cheese!

Lest you think this is any old white goat's cheese, it's known in Norwegian as brunost, or brown cheese. Made from pasteurised goat's whey mixed with either goats' or cows' milk, this cheese is cooked in large vats over a long period until the lactic sugars in the milk start to caramelise. During the slow cooking process, excess liquid evaporates and the cheese turns brown and firm. It's ready to eat and requires no maturation. Think dulce de leche with a salty twist. It's sweet and savoury cheese, with the consistency of firm yet creamy fudge.

The most popular variety of geitost in Norway is actually Gudbrandsdalsost which has the right balance of goat and cow's milk, but you can get pungent, artisan versions that are made from unpasteurised goat's milk, such as this Slow Food one from Undredal, a village near my grandparents' farm that we used to visit when I was growing up. Today the artisan brown cheese appeals, but as a kid I found it too intense, and I remember watching my grandmother cook with it. Oh yes, brown cheese as you might have guessed is full of umami, making it an excellent flavour-enhancer in sauces and stews.

Divisive as Marmite, you either love or hate this cheese, and I'll admit it's an acquired taste, but every child in Norway grows up eating brown cheese sandwiches as part of their school lunchpack. Nothing tastes better on freshly baked wholemeal bread than a pat of butter and a couple of thin slices of brunost. The ski queen equivalent you find over here is powdery and crumbly compared to the real stuff back in Norway.

As brown cheese is something of an acquired taste, babies are often weaned on Prim, a spreadable buttery version of brown cheese that isn't cooked as long as the firm cheese version. It's a sort of nutritious caramel:

Forget being born on skis, we're born with the taste of this cheese in our mouths. Everyone in Norway eats it. At the Lillehammer winter olympics in '94, then prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was asked why Norway did so well despite being such a small country, and she replied in all earnest "It is typical Norwegian to be good" to howls of laughter from my father, who to this day still quotes Brundtland's nugget of jingoism.

Sorry Gro, it's not typically Norwegian to be good, it's typically Norwegian to eat mounds of brown cheese. It's our secret to olympic success, I promise you.

And now I'd better stop musing on log cabins, skiing and cheese. Time to start plotting how to acquire that log cabin, find a hot ski instructor to re-introduce me to the joys of downhill, and make myself a sweet brown cheese sandwich for lunch... ;-)


photo credits:

Top photo of Aksel Svindal CBC Canada,
Second photo of Marit Bjoergen www.morethanthegames.co.uk
Third photo: my parents
Fourth photo of the new Holmenkollen www.dezeen.com
Fifth photo of ekte geitost www.cheesestorebh.com
Bottom photo of synnove prim http://www.flickr.com/photos/synnovefinden/3680517551/


shayma said...

Signe, I really enjoyed reading this bec I know so little about your lovely culture. I was so impressed with the way the Norwegians performed at the Olympics. That log cabin youre talking about, sounds v Canadian, too, youre always welcome to come and visit us here, though I have to warn you, as a Pakistani-Afghan, I dont ski! That brown cheese sounds great and I'd love to see a photo of it. I shall google now. x shayma

Signe said...

Aww thanks Shayma, yes I suspect you get similar cabins in Canada. I was exagerating slightly (only slightly, the sauna is a must) but `i really would love to have a cabin back in Norway. Next time you're in London I shall share some brown cheese with you, and I'd love to come visit you stateside. Fear not, being the clutz I am we can steer clear of the slopes ;)

Anonymous said...

Great post Signe - that is one amazing ski-jump!

Your vision of a ski cabin sounds idyllic - I hope you achieve your dreams!

paul said...

sorry the anon. post was mine !

spiltwine said...

As great and interesting as this story was all I got out of it was YOU LIKE COMICS!!!
I am so happy! Now we can talk about comics and food.
But maybe the comics you like are some weird Nordic ones and not about (pick one)

-A steampunk era detective Badger
-The son of Satan (but he doesnt want to be)
-An inter-planetary bounty hunter

I've even got the book of Genesis illustrated (by R.Crumb if your interested)

My, I've shown far too much of my geeky side here...but if you ever want to borrow one of the above I swear not to tell your faithful Scandilites.


Signe said...

Paul thanks for your comment, will keep you posted on the quest for a log cabin ;-) Can't wait to see the new ski jump in person later this spring when I visit friends in Oslo!

Louis you are a fellow comic geek? Why did we not establish this before! My collection is a little eclectic to say the least. Oddly enough a lot of the French bandes desinees do well in Scandinavia so grew up on translated versions of Lucky Luke, Asterix, Gaston la Gaffe and Spirou! We shall have to convene a wine, food and comics symposium soon ;)

Fiona Beckett said...

Aaaargh, no. I knew there would be a mention of Gjetost sooner or later. You've beaten me into submission. I'm going to have to try the real version sooner or later . . .

goodshoeday said...

I have been assiduously eating real gjetost brown cheese for several years. It has not improved my ability to ski. In fact it hasn't even increased my minimal desire for a log cabin or to be near a ski slope of any description. On the other hand it tastes delicious and thats enough for me :))

Signe said...

Goodshoeday you are going to have to help me convince Fiona of the merits of brown cheese!

The fact that the cheese is delicious is also enough for me, but if I could sit on my fat sofa, barefoot and with a good book in hand whilst chomping away on a brown cheese + spelt sandwich then that would be a moment of supreme joy :)

David said...

I've finally found a couple places locally that carry the brown goat cheese. There are a couple different brands, 'Ski Queen' in a red package and another from 'Tine'. It ain't cheap. But it IS good.

David said...

I see also you mention Aquavit as being integral to your "Nog-cabin" if you will ;-)... Amazing the variety of things I've heard people do with that stuff. If you haven't already, is there a chance you could do a piece on Aquavit and all you can do with it... cooking with it, flavoring it yourself... perhaps stories of things that have happen when you drink too much etc?

A Scot in London said...

That actually sounds amazing (the brown cheese). I now want to try.

what said...

you aren't messing around with these detailed posts, are you

Anonymous said...

Jeg snubla tilfeldigvis over bloggen din, og må si jeg synes det var utrolig artig å lese dette her! Jeg skal selv flytte til London til høsten for å begynne på skole, og jeg må si at selv om jeg elsker London (jeg synes det er en utrolig flott by med fantastisk kultur), så kommer jeg nok til å savne en del typisk norske ting. Det verste er vel egentlig sjokoladen, tror jeg. Det finnes ingen annen sjokolade som er bedre. (Så fint. Spis mindre sjokolade, Ingelinn!)

Som liten var jeg helt hekta på brunost og honning. Så du er nok inne på noe der. Haha.

Julia said...

Great post, Sig. I want a log cabin too . The closest I've got is a stay in one, but it was in this country and with no snow. http://asliceofcherrypie.blogspot.com/2007/02/woodland-hideaway.html

tasteofbeirut said...

My first time on your blog; I am enjoying reading about Norwegian culture as my aunt who has lived in Denmark for the last 50 years, was telling me yesterday how beautiful Norway was; I also love your famous Munch!(the artist, long gone!)
Interesting read for me, thanks.

Signe said...

Hei Ingelinn, kjekt aa lese at du gleder deg til aa flytte til London! Brunost og melkesjokolade kan du finne ved Scandinavian Kitchen pa Great Titchfield Street :)

Julia I LOVE that cabin, lucky you staying there. Looks idyllic...

Taste of Beirut you're most welcome, am a big fan of Lebanese food and would love to visit Beirut one day!

Anonymous said...

You do know the technology exists to fabricate dreams and visions.