Apple juices and ciders made from Hardanger apples are considered among the most exclusive in the world.
This is thanks to English monks and (not least) the apple farmers on the very steep mountainsides along the fjord.
Olav Bleie is one such apple farmer. Just like his father Lars. And his grandfather Olav.
It's so steep along Sørfjorden that all the apples still need to be picked by hand and carried down to the farm.
This farm lies 1,200 metres below the Folgefonna glacier.
The fact that the fjord is so long and narrow, with high mountains on both sides, is the reason why Hardanger apples really thrive here.
English monks discovered this almost 1,000 years ago.
"We have the best of two worlds. We have an inland climate from the east, with mild winters. And the high mountains stop the rain showers from the west. This creates a microclimate that the apples love," says apple farmer Olav Bleie.
The monks were experts in fruit fermentation and brought with them the knowledge of how to transform apples into liquid gold.
That was how the first apple cider saw the light of day in Hardanger. The local farmers quickly learned this art too.
The earliest written sources show that cider making competitions were held in Hardanger as far back as the 1700s.
But it was first in recent years that commercial cider production has really taken off.
"There are now 20 commercial cider and apple juice producers in Sørfjorden alone. Almost all of them have popped up since 2016," says Olav.
Originally from Sweden, Richard Juhlin, has been awarded a Legion d’Honneur as a chevalier and is widely considered the world's foremost expert on Champagne. He believes that Hardanger has the best apples in the world:
"They were fantastic, and it's the soil and the climate that make them that way. The mild area. They have a minerality that is far from anything you have in a hot climate. As sublimity, a richness of nuance. The purity and intensity are bigger than I have ever tasted," Juhlin told Norwegian newspaper DN.
It's not only Juhlin who points this out. Hardanger cherries, Hardanger plums, Hardanger apples, and Hardanger pears have all been given the quality label protected geographical indication, just like "Cider from Hardanger" and "Apple Juice from Hardanger", just like products from regions like Chablis and Champagne.
At the 2021 Norwegian Cider Championship, as many as 5 of the 7 winners were from Hardanger. The competition consists of a taste test conducted by a panel of food and drink professionals.
"The vision is that Norwegian cider from Hardanger will be Norway's answer to Champagne," Ingunn Øvsthus of the Norwegian Institute for Bioresearch (NIBIO) in the idyllic fruit village Lofthus told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
She is conducting research on how to make a unique 'cider language'. Common wine terminology, it turns out, is not descriptive enough to express these unique flavours.
If you think that all apples and ciders are the same, think again. Each individual variety has its one unique flavours and characteristics, and ideal pairing. A variety's body, sugar content, texture, and tannin content all determine its fate. Some apples are destined to be eaten, while others are pressed to make jams or a variety of juices and ciders. Some varieties are full-bodies, others are aromatic, dry, acidic or sweet.
"In addition, the year, soil, and harvest and pressing times all play a role in determining the taste," fruit farmer Asbjørn Børsheim told Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen.
In Ulvik, innermost in the Hardangerfjord, he welcomes 10,000 visitors a year to his farm shop, Ulvik Frukt & Cideri.
It's one of three farms open to visitors on the Fruit and cider route in Ulvik, which also includes Hardanger saft- og siderfabrikk on Lekve Gard, and Syse Gard. The Syse Gard farm also has a very welcoming café and farm shop, with a huge stock of fresh and preserved fruit, cordials, juices, homemade ice cream, and lots of other goodies, including its popular candy apples.
The farm is also an Économusée (a 'working museum'), where you can get up close to tasty artisanal traditions. Syse, which is run by three generations of the family, also keep sheep, who graze freely in the beautiful mountains throughout the summer. The meat is used to make a number of traditional delicacies like pinnekjøtt (dried, salted ribs), fenalår (dried, salted leg of lamb) and sausages, and is preserved and smoked using traditional methods.
The innovation boom of both young fruit farmers and traditional family farms who dare to invest in something new has also led to foodies from around the world streaming to this extremely beautiful fjord area.
Some come to experience the fruit trees in blossom, which reaches its height in May and June. Others enjoy a wide variety of Hardanger fruit in season during the summer, before the apple harvest is in full swing, with its festivals and tastings.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) is a public certification scheme that provides legal protection for products that have a close link to a specific geographical area as well as traditional local specialities. Norway has its own national legislation in addition to the EU scheme.
The purpose of certification is to increase innovation and product ranges by stimulating regional and local food production.
A narrow trail veers from side to side up the steep mountainside on Olav Bleie's farm, where no big, heavy tractors can get through.
All the apples are gently picked by hand before being collected in crates.
The farmers are rewarded for their hard work. No other Norwegian products have seen such a growth in popularity as cider, and the apple juices are included in the drinks packages at the finest restaurants.
"My ideal cider is one in which the fruit and the apple's gentle aromas play the leading role," explains Olav, who uses varieties like Discovery and Gravenstein in his products.
'Approved by my father' is the quality stamp Olav uses on his labels.
Take a wellness break at venerable Ullensvang Hotel, with its extensive spa facilities and outdoor heated canals with views of the fjord.
Here, you can also climb the 616 monk steps up to the top of Nosi mountain. The steps were first made by the same English Cistercian monks who brought the art of cider making to the village in the 1200s.
In summer, you can also take a cider cruise, enjoy a gourmet meal at Siderhuset Ola K, and spend the night at historic Utne Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Norway.
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