Hungry for a taste of Arctic Norway? Here’s a serving of the region’s deliciously diverse culinary culture.
Text: Mikael Lunde
In Northern Norway, local food is in abundance.
Northern Norway is home to more than just iconic islands and islets, breath-taking fjords and a rugged coastline. Its Arctic waters, kept clear of ice by the Gulf Stream, provide the perfect breeding ground for the fish and seafood that the country has become renowned for.
This part of Northern Norway is scarcely populated apart from traditional Sami reindeer herders, snow scooter adventurers and the occasional mushers’ tents during marathon dog sledding races.
As you travel inland away from the coast, you’ll find reindeer and moose, rivers full of fish and a wide variety of berries, junipers and chives growing wildly – all inspiring the tastes of the local cuisine.
At dozens of ports along the coast of Northern Norway, local suppliers are delivering their catch, prey and produce to the traditional passenger liner Hurtigruten.
“We have more than 200 suppliers of fish, meats, produce and other local ingredients that we meet en route. There is usually something at every port,” says Jimmy Westberg, head chef at MS Midnatsol – one of 13 ships in the fleet.
For well over a hundred years Hurtigruten has transported passengers along Norway’s dramatic coastline from Bergen and all the way to Kirkenes near the Russian border and the Barents Sea. It’s one of the most popular ways to experience the region.
While travellers get the chance to go on inland adventures and try local restaurants in port, the food experience on the ships is an adventure in itself.
We meet Westberg as he is preparing fish for tonight’s à la carte menu. “This guy was in the sea just yesterday,” the chef says. “It’s a lot of fun to work with food like that.”
To educate and entertain the passengers, he’ll hold demonstrations of the local ingredients on deck: filleting fish, boiling mussels, carving reindeer thighs or serving the traditional, salted and dried lamb’s thigh – fenalår in Norwegian.
Hurtigruten is a Norwegian cruise operator founded in 1893.
Their 11 coastal ships sail almost the entire length of the country, and the journey has become known as the “World’s most beautiful sea voyage”.
The original route takes you from Bergen to Kirkenes through islets, archipelagos and towns – some of which are unreachable with ordinary ships and cars.
Hurtigruten calls on 34 ports along the northern coast of Norway, each of which add local ingredients to your culinary journey.
Read more about Hurtigruten.
”Røkelaks” (smoked salmon)
Invest in a whole fish or simply go for delicately packed and convenient slices. Top off your purchase with some specially made mustard sauce.
This fish species is known to taste a bit sweeter than salmon. If you’re really brave, you can try some partially fermented trout as well.
Herring comes in increasingly many variations, with a myriad of marinades and flavours.
Stockfish that has been lying in water and lye (a way to preserve fish in the old days), then cooked in the oven. Typically accompanied by potatoes, bacon, pea stew, and mustard.
In port in Tromsø, one of the most popular restaurants is called Emma’s Drømmekjøkken, meaning Emma’s Dream Kitchen. “Because she is a dream woman,” says the owner, Anne Brit Andreassen.
Emma is her alter ego. But she is also the idea of someone’s grandma or aunt – someone loving who puts their heart into the food they prepare. Their signature dish was really just intended as lunch for the employees – the house gratin with white fish, macaroni and prawns in béchamel sauce, bacon, raw vegetables and potatoes.
A favourite spot for the Norwegian Queen, this place is elegantly casual.
From the more advanced, seasonal menu upstairs we are served the traditional boknafisk, a variant of dried, Arctic cod. It has a firmer consistency than you'd expect, and the flavour is salty, yet rich and intricate. It’s served with sautéed cabbage and pickled carrot, soy butter with chilli, and garlic, ginger and scallions.
The food comes from local suppliers and traditions – that is, from the sea and the highland plateaus. Many recipes come from local mothers and grandmothers.
Relative to its small population, Northern Norway has an unusual amount of these good, charming restaurants – whether you’re in Alta, Tromsø or Svolvær.
The latter lies in the Lofoten archipelago, about a day’s sailing south of Tromsø. This is one of the most stunning areas that Hurtigruten passes through, which says a lot. With mountains rising from the sea, Lofoten is a great place for outdoor adventures, wildlife safaris and extreme sports.
And food. In the local kitchens – like Børsen Spiseri, that has been on the same premises since 1828 – the tastes of the sea have been refined through innumerable generations. We are served steamed stockfish filet on a bed of carrot stew, with egg butter and potatoes, topped with Serrano ham.
This is one of a handful of excellent restaurants that the tiny population of Svolvær enjoy.
“We’re at 68° north latitude, but the water temperature never falls below 6–7° C,” Johnny Kløften, a local guide for the town’s fishing villages explains. “The Lofoten islands are like an arm that reach into the sea and catch the warm Gulf Stream.”
Every spring, this is where 100 million Atlantic cod come to breed, trekking from way up north in the Barents Sea. And for centuries, tens of thousands of fishermen have travelled here to try and catch them.
High season runs from May to September. During the summer months, you can fish around the clock thanks to the midnight sun.
Hard-core anglers will also be interested in winter fishing, especially the famous skrei (migrating cod) fishing that takes place from January to March. It will be dark and cold, but you might spot the northern lights dancing across the sky.