Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
Fish, Fruit & Fjords:
Ventures in Western Norway
On a river expedition, paddling down the salmon-rich Suldalslågen River in Western Norway, we had just pulled up on a riverbank for a welcome respite. There, Bjørn Moe, the man in charge, made coffee and tea, and handed out frying pans and pancake mix for anyone interested in making pancakes.
Most of us did. Soon, the clean Nordic air filled with cooking smells and happy bonding.
The expedition concluded with a tour of Sandfossen waterfall and the adjacent Laksestudio. There, a large underwater window allowed us to watch salmon in their natural environment, fighting their way upstream to spawn.
That evening Bjørn showed me his small brewery. His beer, he said, was produced according to renhetsloven (the purity law), which decrees that beer must contain no more than four ingredients: water, barely, hops, and yeast.
“No pasteurization,” he stated, saluting me with a raised glass of delicious homemade beer.
Later, at Hotel Mo Laksegard, we ate roast lamb, expertly prepared by Bjørn’s mother. And there we met Charles, who for three days had stood knee-deep in the Suldalslågen river, concentrating on the fine art of angling. British to the core and with a somewhat superior attitude, he expounded on the psychology of salmon, making little drawings on paper napkins to explain their erratic behavior. The fish must have known what they were doing, however, since, despite their multitude, Charles, the expert fisherman, had yet to catch one single salmon.
The following morning we met wth Greta and Rognald Stuhaug, caretakers of Stuhaug Turismen & Gardsmuseum in Sandeid, just south of Mo Laksegard. Like Agatunet, Stuhaug is a collection of old timber houses, reverently restored and crammed with antique furniture, tools, and other artifacts from the past 400 years. Rognald proved an engaging guide, and Greta, dressed in folk costume, served us coffee and lefse at a long table, beneath heavy beams with painted garlands of flowers.
A warm farewell, and we were on the road again, heading for a hotel in Haugesund, and for a visit to Avaldnes, one of the most sacred places in all of Norway.
Avaldnes, some contend, is where Norway begun, the first place to bear its name – Nordvegen, the North Way - and where Harald Finehair set up his main estate after unifying the country in AD 872. Occupying the site now is a medieval church and various burial mounds, one of which is the Cowmound. Which brings us to King Augvald who, long before Harald, was a powerful man who traced his ancestry back to the Giants, and whose strength and vitality came from drinking the milk of a Holy Cow. Whether the mound is the cow’s final resting place is unclear – it may contain Augvald, or both of them.
In Avaldnes, a short walk took us to the Viking Farm on the small island of Bukøy, where we stumbled upon a Long House, complete with a dragon’s head on the roof. Other artifacts were on display in the mysterious semi-darkness of its interior, and all around stood reconstructed buildings from the Viking age. A great tourist attraction from March to October, the Viking Farm also serves as a very special school for children.
Here, in Viking outfits, transported back in time a thousand years, children engage in various farm activities, such as the construction of fences, textile work, and preparation for the day’s dinner. And in the evening, as they gather around the fireplace to eat the meal they themselves have prepared, they listen to old Norse sagas, to music and poetry. Altogether, the emphasis is on Vikings as farmers, fishermen, craftsmen and poets, not as pirates and barbarians. Absent in the teaching is the terror that made all Europe shudder, and gave rise to the expression: “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord.”
Continuing south, we stopped at Skudenshavn, a pretty little harbor town at the southern tip of the municipality of Karmøy. “We grew up with herring and lobster,” said one of its inhabitants. I could well believe it. Everywhere you looked you felt the presence of the sea, from window decorations with maritime motifs to a colossal anchor sculpture in one of the town squares. Speaking of anchors, even a fire hydrant I saw was shaped like one. The great son of Skudeshavn is Ole Christian Hansen (1885-1935). Not surprisingly, he was the inventor of the foghorn.
Now to Stavanger, the 2008 European Capital of Culture, and our last major stop on this leisurely trip down western Norway.
Arriving just in time for dinner, we went directly to Sjøhuset Skagen, a landmark restaurant next to the quay, across from Stavanger’s old town. There, in a converted warehouse reminiscent of the Hanseatic quarters in Bergen, we feasted on a meal of salmon and catfish, garnished with mussels.
In Stavanger, as in Skudenshavn, herring was once king. A reflection of the prosperity that came with the trade can be seen in the old town with its 173 white houses, most of which were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sticking to fish even after the herring trade dwindled in the late 1800s, Stavanger subsequently became the world’s preeminent manufacturers of canned sardines, boasting, at one point, 72 canning factories.
The next and final day of our Norwegian venture was packed with action, beginning with a sightseeing cruise on Lysefjord, during which we passed Preikestolen, the Pulpit Rock, a much photographed place some 2,000 feet above sea level.
After the cruise we met with Hans Voll, a cheese-maker of the highest order, whose factory with its gleaming copper forms and rows upon rows of highly commendable cheeses bespoke of utter professionalism. Though quite small, with only one employee, the Voll Ysteri has twice won the gold medal in the country’s annual exhibition for farm cheese. “The cheese of Jaeren,” he told me, adding that it was the first one produced from raw un-pasteurized milk in all of Norway.
Our day concluded with a foray into the Ryfylke archipelago for a date on the island of Halsnøy with Sofie Bjerga Roth, a former chef and caterer who now grows organic blackberries. She sells to private stores in the region. Standing in one of her greenhouses, we were offered a sampling of what a blackberry should taste like. Delicious indeed. Her annual production is 5,000 kg and she is thinking of expanding her business to include raspberries and blueberries.
Before embarking on this trip, phrases such as “ecofriendly” and “green environment” had seemed little more than politically correct buzzwords. Now they had profound meaning.
After our visit to the greenhouse, Sofie and her friend Hanne took us on what I imagined would be a short walk. I should have known better. The Norwegians are a hardy race, combining a boundless love of nature with a craving for hardship. Before we knew it, in deteriorating weather, we were climbing Elkefjellet, a steep 2,000-foot mountain. Rain was imminent and soon it would be dark. I excused myself on the grounds there would be no photo ops in the woods above. But Roxie (who works out in a gym every day) was not to be deterred. As I returned to the car, she valiantly followed our newfound friends to the top.
An hour and a half later, three bedraggled women showed up in almost total darkness. Roxie sighed with relief; Sofie and Hanna giggled with happiness. What could be more invigorating than a good tramp in the woods?
Only in Norway.
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