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The taste of Christmas

Norwegians are known for being a happy people, and we surely celebrate Christmas in the most diverse ways. Some immerse themselves in the sacred aspects of the season or enjoy a quiet time with family and friends, whilst others embrace the party.

Still, there are some specific tastes, flavours, and traditions that need to be in place for the Christmas spirit to truly take hold of Norway’s homes. The traditions vary wildly from the north to the south and from the east to west, and here are some of the major ones. Are you ready to cook? Warm up for your tasty holiday with The Norwegian Cookbook.

Mutton versus pork

The most eagerly anticipated meal of the year? To many, that would be the dinner on Christmas Eve.

In Norway, two traditional dishes are contenders for the most popular Christmas dinners – “ribbe” (pork rib) and “pinnekjøtt” (lamb or mutton rib). Whilst the former has been the overall prime choice for years, the popularity of pinnekjøtt grows for each passing year. Many Norwegians get a taste of both dishes during Christmas.

The pork rib is above all characterised by its rind, which takes quite some time and effort to prepare as crispy as it deserves. It is usually accompanied by meatballs, sausages, sauerkraut, and other filling ingredients.

Pinnekjøtt (literally “stick meat”) is salted and dried rib from mutton, named after the meal’s traditional preparation method of being boiled on top of birch twigs. The meat plays the main part, but potatoes, mashed root vegetables, and broth are essential culinary sidekicks.

Just before Christmas, especially in Fjord Norway, the odd culinary speciality smalahove is very popular. Smalahove is a burnt, smoked and boiled sheep’s head served whole, and is usually eaten with potatoes, mashed swedes, beer, and aquavit.

Fish from a long coast

Given Norway’s ancient traditions as a fishing nation, Christmas along the coast is unsurprisingly celebrated with riches from the sea. 

In the south, cooked cod has been a favourite for Christmas Eve, preferably served with Sandefjord butter sauce, carrots, and potatoes. Even though the aforementioned rib dishes to some extent has replaced the white fish as Christmas dinner, many southerners will enjoy it as one of many meals during the days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

The longest-standing Norwegian Christmas tradition, however, is lutefisk, going all the way back to the 15th and 16th century. It’s made from stockfish treated with lye (“lut”). Every December, more than 750 tonnes of this distinctive delicacy is being devoured by Norwegians, and it is also a popular dish in the parts of the USA with the most Norwegian descendants, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Like lutefisk, “rakfisk” can be an acquired taste, but the fermented freshwater fish has many fans. It’s often served in thin potato rolls with sour cream and onions. In Bergen, “persetorsk”, sugared, salted and pressed cod, is a seasonal favourite in many homes.

For dessert, rice pudding with whipped cream is the Norwegian classic on Christmas Eve, whilst cloudberry cream is common in the north. Other important features in the culinary Norwegian tradition this time of year include clementines, nuts, herring, and pickled pork with mustard.

Spicy liquids traditions

Where there is traditional food, chances are there’ll be traditional drink as well. Many Norwegians favour two complimentary beverages in particular: Beer and aquavit.

Christmas beer is darker, fuller, and higher in alcohol content than the beer consumed the rest of the year. In the old days, brewing one’s own beer was required by law, for poor folks as well as affluent citizens, and gathering to drink the beer was regarded as a sacred act.

A companion to the heavy beer is aquavit, a spicy nordic potato liquor providing a welcome balance to the fatty and filling Christmas foods. In Norway, aquavit is aged in oak casks.

The Norwegians’ also have their own take on mulled wine. “Gløgg” is usually made up of hot red wine and/or aquavit, sugar, and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and bitter orange. The drink is served with almonds and raisins. Children get a non-alcoholic version made with fruit juice instead of wine.

The hungry elf in the barn

The chubby, generous and kind Santa Claus has become a central part of the modern Norwegian Christmas celebration. “Fjøsnissen” (the barn elf) is a more mischievous and slightly sinister character that was important when Norway was still a farming community.

You’d be well advised to stay friends with this short, bearded guy. If treated well, he would help make sure that the farm prospered. If unhappy with the swing of things, however, he could exercise the most brutal forms of revenge, such as striking the dairy cattle dead.

This is why farmers used to bring rice porridge and home-brewed beer to the barn every Christmas, a tradition that continues on Norwegian farms to this day.

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