Tuesday, 2 March 2010
The *sweet* taste of success
I want a log cabin.
A modest Norwegian log cabin of course, heaven forfend none of those plush Alpine chalets. Just a quaint log cabin with a few basic amenities: workable kitchen, a fireplace and a sauna. Moose antlers to grace the front door, a polar bear rug on the floor and a few choice pieces of vintage Norwegian furniture to lend the cabin authenticity. There will be books scattered all over the place, and comics, lots of old comics. Under-floor cable heating installed throughout the cabin will mean I can scamper around barefoot from sauna to kitchen, foregoing the thermal and fleece socks I've been wearing all winter back in London. A requisite fat sofa will sit in front of a window with a magnificent panoramic view of the local fjord, the surrounding forest and the little woodpecker nest hidden in the nearest tree.
In this cabin I'll retreat from the world, read books and comics, drink aquavit, and take in the breathtaking vista of my fatherland, all whilst having exceptionally warm feet.
There's only one problem.
In order not to be lynched by the locals I need to ski. It's no good retreating to a cabin in Norway and not ski. Norwegians are fierce ski enthusiasts and some wise scribe once irritatingly claimed we Norwegians are all born on skis, suggesting we're pre-destined to be superhuman skiers. My parents met when dad was a ski instructor in Breckenridge and mama johansen was a voluptuous snowbunny, so I had no choice but to ski from a young age:
Snowbunny junior ca.1984
But there is a grain of truth in the notion that we're born to ski: one of my earliest memories is of dad holding me carefully as we skied slowly down gentle slopes in Oslo. From the age of five I was racing both cross-country and downhill in the local Tomm Murstad ski school. It was practically the law. Back in the '80s there were no plump Norwegian children playing on their playstations. We were all skiing six months of the year, eating wholesome sandwiches, fruit and the requisite kvikk-lunsj (akin to a kit-kat but somehow cannily marketed as an essential foodstuff for skiers). It was the Norwegian Ideal and a perfect parenting strategy: expose children to crisp winter air all day and total exhaustion will render us sweet and placid.
Living on top of a mountain in Oslo, our house was near a ski jump called Holmenkollen where the winter olympics were held in 1952. As I was musing on the abovementtioned log cabin fantasy I discovered the beloved Holmenkollen ski jump of my childhood had recently been renovated:
Yowzers. The world's fastest ski jump on your door step. Times have changed.
While I watched the winter games last week it occurred to me how spoilt we are in Norway: you walk out the door, put on your skis and simply set off into the wilderness for a day's cross-country, or head for the nearest slope to go downhill. The easy access to nature and great ski terrain is a constant reminder of how achingly beautiful Norway really is, thus making die-hard patriots of us all. Despite my better instincts I get pangs of nostalgia when I think of Nordmarka, the national park behind our house, and of course Holmenkollen.
Being contrarian I decided at a young age that downhill was for adrenaline junkies, and adrenaline junkies who are co-ordinated at that. With cross-country you have time to absorb your surroundings and it also means you're less likely to ski into a tree, as I was prone to with downhill. As you might imagine, this didn't go down so well with the parents. Dad's visions of my becoming an olympic downhill champion were shattered, and to this day he still ribs me about my dislike of downhill. Sadly I haven't skied cross-country with any regularity since moving to the UK ten years ago. For shame!
Norway goes bananas during the winter olympics, and as I watched the games I found myself thinking the following:
1) I need a log cabin
2) I need to swallow my fear and start downhill skiing again
3) why the frack is Norway always doing do well in the winter olympics?
Canada with their 14 gold medals may have reigned supreme on home soil, but Norway had its moments of owning the podium, matching that sporting colossus the U.S. with 9 gold medals. We're talking about a nation of 4.7 million people versus 300 million in the U.S.
For a time last week the most read article on the Wall Street Journal was one which asked the same question, what lay behind Norway's success in the games? I suspect the reason it was WSJ's most-read feature that day was 4.7 million Norwegians were clicking on it.
Pondering this question I wondered if it might be related to diet. Not the celebrated Nordic Diet, but something specific to Norway. Could it be the large volume of fish we eat? If that were the case, Japan, Iceland, Spain and other piscine-loving nations would surely do just as well as Norway in the winter games. No, that couldn't be it. What about our love of smoked fish and cured meat? A lot of top Norwegian skiers come from the west Norwegian town of Voss, where the local tradition is to serve smoked sheep heads to guests.
No, this wasn't it either. Icelanders eat things like sheep buried in the ground and other weird cured meat. They hardly gained a medal in the winter games.
Then suddenly...Eureka! It struck me as I was nibbling a slice of this:
It must be our geitost, or goat's cheese!
Lest you think this is any old white goat's cheese, it's known in Norwegian as brunost, or brown cheese. Made from pasteurised goat's whey mixed with either goats' or cows' milk, this cheese is cooked in large vats over a long period until the lactic sugars in the milk start to caramelise. During the slow cooking process, excess liquid evaporates and the cheese turns brown and firm. It's ready to eat and requires no maturation. Think dulce de leche with a salty twist. It's sweet and savoury cheese, with the consistency of firm yet creamy fudge.
The most popular variety of geitost in Norway is actually Gudbrandsdalsost which has the right balance of goat and cow's milk, but you can get pungent, artisan versions that are made from unpasteurised goat's milk, such as this Slow Food one from Undredal, a village near my grandparents' farm that we used to visit when I was growing up. Today the artisan brown cheese appeals, but as a kid I found it too intense, and I remember watching my grandmother cook with it. Oh yes, brown cheese as you might have guessed is full of umami, making it an excellent flavour-enhancer in sauces and stews.
Divisive as Marmite, you either love or hate this cheese, and I'll admit it's an acquired taste, but every child in Norway grows up eating brown cheese sandwiches as part of their school lunchpack. Nothing tastes better on freshly baked wholemeal bread than a pat of butter and a couple of thin slices of brunost. The ski queen equivalent you find over here is powdery and crumbly compared to the real stuff back in Norway.
As brown cheese is something of an acquired taste, babies are often weaned on Prim, a spreadable buttery version of brown cheese that isn't cooked as long as the firm cheese version. It's a sort of nutritious caramel:
Forget being born on skis, we're born with the taste of this cheese in our mouths. Everyone in Norway eats it. At the Lillehammer winter olympics in '94, then prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was asked why Norway did so well despite being such a small country, and she replied in all earnest "It is typical Norwegian to be good" to howls of laughter from my father, who to this day still quotes Brundtland's nugget of jingoism.
Sorry Gro, it's not typically Norwegian to be good, it's typically Norwegian to eat mounds of brown cheese. It's our secret to olympic success, I promise you.
And now I'd better stop musing on log cabins, skiing and cheese. Time to start plotting how to acquire that log cabin, find a hot ski instructor to re-introduce me to the joys of downhill, and make myself a sweet brown cheese sandwich for lunch... ;-)
Top photo of Aksel Svindal CBC Canada,
Second photo of Marit Bjoergen www.morethanthegames.co.uk
Third photo: my parents
Fourth photo of the new Holmenkollen www.dezeen.com
Fifth photo of ekte geitost www.cheesestorebh.com
Bottom photo of synnove prim http://www.flickr.com/photos/synnovefinden/3680517551/