Over the past 30 years, Nærøyfjord and Undredal got roads and a lot more tourists. Other than that, things are more or less like they’ve always been.
Text: Mikael Lunde. Video: Kyrre Lien
In a showroom for the local goat cheese, Leif Inge Underdal boldly breaks into a verse of “Kråkevisa” – the crow’s song – stomping the beats determinedly with his foot. “I get people to sing along on that last phrase. Everyone can follow it, whether they come from Korea or anywhere else”, he says.
We are in Undredal. Translatable as “wonder valley,” the tiny, waterside village lies in the heart of the fairytale-like Norwegian fjord landscape, near the mouth of the Nærøyfjord. At the quayside café, Underdal gives travellers a taste of the local culture. And yes: his name is a variation of the name of the village.
The sudden sing-along is an icebreaker as effective as the ships keeping the narrow seaways open through winter. Yet the choice of “Kråkevisa” is not random. The moral of this traditional folk tune is that one should utilize everything and not throw anything away – a lesson that has been important here in this isolated valley throughout history. “I try to give an understanding of how it is possible to live off the land along the fjord.
Every resource associated with the farm has to be leveraged to sustain the agriculture”, explains Underdal, who also runs the village’s local grocery store. “But those who come and listen shouldn’t just learn something, they should have a good time and enjoy themselves as well”, he says, enthusiastically. “So I’ll offer a bit of entertainment.”
A couple minutes up the still-new road from Undredal, there’s a cluster of small farms producing goat cheese and meats. At midday, one of them has a post-it note nailed to the front door: “The milkmaid is on break till 2 PM”.
Rubbing sleep out of her eyes, Erna Underdal Skarsbø still offers coffee and cake with freshly made goat cheese. That’s what you do in these parts, when a stranger comes knocking. The cheese isn’t usually made in the next room, though. “It was made this morning”, says Erna, who’s up at 4 AM every day to milk the animals.
Some of her cheese she sells at Leif Inge’s store in Undredal. But now that there’s a road, she’s had visitors coming by car from the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe, seeing her “Goat cheese for sale” sign from the road. “We’ll communicate using finger language and some words in broken English”, tells Erna, whose farm has been in the family for four generations.
One of Norway’s most characteristic products is the brown whey cheese made from goat’s milk. “The whey is boiled for 7–8 hours, until the milk’s natural sugars get caramelized”, explains Underdal at the café, while showcasing four different cheeses from the valley’s small factory.
The cheese is served with flatbread, sour cream, local goat sausage, and three kinds of jam from wild berries – blueberries, raspberries and of course the local favorite, cloudberries. Blackcurrant squash and freshly made apple juice belong at the traditional table as well.
Everything is locally produced, everything is full of flavor: “The goats are free to climb up the mountainside to find the very best food. And when they eat the best, then you will also get the best milk possible”, says the grocer.
It is from the fjord that you’ll get the best view of the traditional mountainside farms, clinging, impossibly, to the steep slopes. The famous “Stigen” – the ladder – is a good example: a solitary farm several hundred meters removed from the turquoise fjord water below. “When the tax collector came to collect money back in the old days, they’d pull up the ladder so he couldn’t get there. Or so the story goes”, says Per A. Hove, captain of MF “Fanaraaken” running the route between Flåm and Gudvangen.
Along the Nærøyfjord you can still see three old hamlets squeezed in between the fjords and the mountains, where people have lived and made a living since time immemorial. The largest of them had perhaps 40 residents only a few generations ago, but now there are hardly any left at all. “Just one single guy stays in that hamlet over the winter“, says Hove, pointing at one charming, tiny settlement as the ferry glides silently past.
Hove first sailed this route in 1962. Half a century later, he’s not bored. “There are some who say it is in the blood. I think there’s something to that”, he says of working at sea. “There are always new challenges, no two days are alike. And of course, this fjord is just so special especially on sunny days. On the last stretch towards Gudvangen, the scenery will still mesmerize me.”
Likewise, for Erna, there is much that will never change. “What has changed over the last 30 years is that we’ve gotten roads, and I have a car, and there are more tourists. Otherwise it is the same. We’re keeping track of the outside world in our way, but it is so quiet, so good to be here. Everything just falls into place”, says the milkmaid, “It is my paradise.”
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