When I told a friend I was going on a Norwegian cruise he wrinkled his nose and said, “Well, I hope you enjoy eating pickled herring.”
I don’t really. Food, for me, is a key part of travel, so I've eschewed cruise ships for no other reason than I have an aversion to being trapped with 4,000 others on a ship whose dining rooms (based on first hand reports) are piled high with buffets of grayish meat and bowls of catsup.
But an invitation to board The Finnmarken in the Hurtigruten cruise ship family and sail up the island-speckled and fjord-carved coast of Norway from Bergen to Kirkenes piqued my interest. Much smaller than the typical hulks-of-the-sea, Hurtigruten's vessels have been ferrying Norwegians along the north-south corridor since 1893 (winter and summer) and are an integral part of the country's seafaring heritage. They've been modernized, of course, kitted with amenities like bars and restaurants, pools and gyms, and a catalogue of unique off-ship excursions. But still---what about the food? My opinion of cruise ship food was altered for the better after my first meal.
Thanks to the cruise line’s newly redesigned dining concept called “Norway’s Coastal Kitchen," I swooned over the seasonal and locally sourced ingredients from small independent farms along the coast that transformed into savory dishes that tip a hat to Norway's history and traditions. At each port, some of which are tiny outposts of a few painted houses, others large cities, 34 calls in all, new products were brought aboard to fill the pantry with the flavors of Norway, and tell the stories of those who make them. It's not just pickled herring my friends, and there was not a bowl of catsup in sight!
“We wanted to differentiate ourselves by telling the story of Norway and its farmers, not by serving food from other parts of the world,” said Eirik Larsen, executive chef and culinary concept developer at Hurtigruten. “Larger cruise ships with 4-5,000 people do that, but that’s not the experience we want for our guests.”
I had some fantastic meals aboard the ship, a toured Norway as I ate. Salted lamb from Geiranger, famous for its eponymous fjord and its apples. From the 7,000 islands and resident fishermen that cluster just outside of the city of Trondheim, we dined on crab cocktail and halibut. A cheese called Nyr, made on a small organic farm and similar, they say, to Skyr, a cheesee the Vikings ate. Something I’d never heard of are the tart, orange-yellow Cloudberries, which grow only at high altitudes or in the far north of the country. And what else do you eat at the end of the world (or the top of Europe as is the case with North Cape) but monster size King Crab.
Eirik sat down with me, and a plate of smoke salmon with some goat-sheep cheese from the stunning Lofoten Islands, and played The Foodie Five.
The Foodie Five
1. What is your favorite childhood food memory?
My grandmother’s stew made with ox meat and vegetables, and cooked for a very long time.
2. You have only 5-minutes to leave your kitchen, what do you grab and why?
My chef’s knife. It’s an essential tool in any kitchen.
3. No one’s looking---what’s your secret food fetish?
4. You have Carte Blanche to dine in any country in the world. Where would you go?
Greenland. It’s simple food made with what’s available. You eat what you have around you and taste your surroundings. Food has become so complicated these days. Why do I want to eat a strawberry that tastes like a lemon? It can be done, but why?
5. If someone were to visit your hometown of Stavanger where would you send him to dinner and what should he eat?
Go to Fisketorget. It’s a fish market and restaurant in the center of town and is fresh and good every time.
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