Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
Fish, Fruit & Fjords:
Ventures in Western Norway
Hesitant at first, my wife bit gingerly, pronouncing it “bland but quite oily.”
She had been handed a fish pellet and, more or less, ordered to eat it – the implication being that in a place as rigorously eco-friendly as this, what’s good enough for a fish is good enough for human consumption.
A circuitous route through breath-taking fjord country had taken us to the Hardanger Akvasenter, a salmon farm in the small community of Steinstø, a 90-minute drive from Bergen.
The Akvasenter exemplified the very latest and most advanced in Norwegian fish farming. Standing in front of one of the tanks, and watching the swirls from surfacing fish, we were told that this particular tank – a 40’ square with a depth of 50’ – contained 60,000 salmon. A controlled environment, indeed: not only were temperature and oxygen distribution kept at specific levels through sophisticated computer programming, cameras had been placed in each corner of the tank, allowing for visual supervision at all times. In a room that looked rather like a research station or a laboratory, an employee turned on a monitor, and we found ourselves staring into the eyes of an unsuspecting salmon.
The place was absolutely spotless, leaving us with the notion that – who knows - salmon may not have to be wild to be delicious.
Our Norwegian adventure began when we took the train from Oslo to Bergen. Choosing rail proved auspicious. I’ve always liked trains. They are (in Europe anyway) comfortable and relaxing, even luxurious. And you can enjoy the scenery with not the slightest concern about oncoming traffic. Speaking of scenery, we had heard that the views would be spectacular during this six-and-a-half hour journey across Norway’s mountainous midriff. Suffice it to say, they were.
Spectacular scenery followed after we left Bergen by car and followed RV7 Tourist Route. I especially recall Skjervfossen, twin waterfalls with a rainbow to boot.
Though stunningly beautiful with its high mountains and deep fjords, this is not a country conducive to easy living. Throughout history, Norwegians have been forced to squeeze every advantage out of what for the most part is an unforgiving land - a condition fostering strong work ethics. Newfound oil riches notwithstanding, the typical Norwegian is still a hardy character, intolerant of waste.
This was brought to mind when we ran into Arnvid Steinsø, a local fruit grower. We met at the Steinstø Frukt & Kakebu, a roadside café, where we had stopped for coffee and apple pie. Arnvid happened to be there, and took me on a short walk through his nearby apple orchard.
It was a lovely morning. Below I caught glimpses of the Hardanger fjord; the sky was a bright blue, the trees an intense green, and there were apples everywhere, the color of which, coincidentally, matched the vivid reds of Arnvid’s checkered shirt.
The area, he told me, is the northernmost venue for apples in Europe. “I grow 25 varieties,” he said, “and 15 kinds of pears.” Other fruits were strawberries, raspberries, and cherries. All in all, his annual production is over 32,000 pounds.
Back at the Kakebu, I learn that monks in the Middle Ages introduced fruit growing in Hardanger, and that Steinstø farm had been in the family for eight generations.
Grieg slept here
That afternoon we took a ferry to the small town of Utne, where a room awaited us at the Utne Hotel, the oldest hotel in Norway still in operation. Housed in a beautiful white wooden building, it was established in 1722, and has, for nearly 300 years, been a natural stopping place for people traveling to Bergen.
Both Roxie and I found the place fascinating, a throwback in time with its old-world feel and atmosphere. After a visit to the nearby Hardanger Folk museum - where a scene with a wedding party in traditional costumes sitting in a long narrow boat particularly caught my attention – we sat down for a specially prepared dinner in the hotel’s old dining room.
Whale meat and kusk may not sound overly mouth-watering, but both were delicious. The whale, cut in thin slices and served as an appetizer, tasted rather like a cross between carpaccio and roast beef, and the kusk, which is a cod-like fish indigenous to the area, reminded me of monkfish. As the main dish, it was served with julienne carrots, boiled potatoes, and reduced red-wine sauce, and was followed by a raspberry sorbet with fresh mint, and a razor-thin leaf of dark chocolate. And throughout the meal, we drank an excellent Italian red house wine.
The next day, zigzagging our way south through beautiful fjord country, we became increasingly aware of how firmly rooted the people around here are in history and tradition. First there was SjurJaastad at the Hardanger Cideri, another hard-working individual involved with apples, whose final product proved wonderfully refreshing. Next came Agatunet, an idyllic farm hamlet with some 35 or 40 buildings dating from medieval to modern times.
While there, we were served traditional Norwegian food at an old-fashioned farm. It was here, I believe, that we were first introduced to lefse, a Norwegian delicacy, which with almost uncanny regularity would show up on our table the next few days. We felt honored, since lefse (a soft flatbread made out of potato, cream and flour and cooked on a griddle) is reserved for special occasions only. You roll it up in butter and sugar, sometimes with cinnamon, and have it with coffee.
While there, we also drove to nearby Låtefoosen, an over 300-foot waterfall, and a well-known tourist attraction.
The next morning, after spending the night in the town of Odda, we were off again, following the Ryfylke road along the Lake Røldalsvatnet, and looking for signs to Sand and Mo Laksegard Hotel, where we would be stay for the night.
Paddling for pancakes
So there we were, in rubber rafts, oar in hand, paddling down the salmon-rich Suldalslågen River.In charge of the expedition was Bjørn Moe, an entrepreneurial Norwegian who, apart from owning the Mo Laksegard hotel where we were staying, took visitors on Salmon Safaris and River Expeditions. Perfect for the job, he exuded a warm comfortable air and wore a wide-brimmed leather hat picked up on a recent trip to Australia. With us were about 30 schoolteachers, all gathered together to bond before the school opened.
And bond they did. After an hour or so of just the right degree of exertion in churning waters, we pulled up on a riverbank for a welcome respite.
Pancakes, and more of our adventures, to follow…
End of Part 1.
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