Scuba diving for scallops in the frigid fjords of Norway, Gordon Ramsay may be thankful he’s wearing a dry suit, but he can still feel the icy water temperature. “I got stabbed by bagging some sea urchins,” he says. “Fortunately, my hands are numb, so I can’t even feel it.” But after he’s safely out of the water and tasting the sweetness of the fresh scallops he’s harvested, he declares that he’s ready to move to Norway—even in winter.
The spectacular scenery among the fjords and mountains of southern Norway regularly makes the covers of magazines and shows up in Instagram posts. But living here through the bitter winter months, Norwegians know that “Viking season” is when their creative methods of preservation and fermentation allow them to endure harsh conditions. Norway’s cuisine has been shaped by its 63,000-mile coastline, by its long winters and brief summers, by the forests that cover a third of its surface, and by the mountains that cut off the west from the east.
The ingredients are evolving, however, as technology advances. Before the advent of scuba and the ability to breathe at greater depths, scallops weren’t part of the daily Norwegian diet. Chef Christopher Haatuft, at the cutting edge of western Norway’s food scene, focuses on fresh local seafood and gives a modern twist to traditional Nordic cuisine.
“If someone wants to discover the food of my region, they have to look at how people settled hundreds of years ago, along the fjords and up in the mountains, and how they hunted and fished and tried not to starve to death in winter,” Haatuft says. “Here, it’s mainly about salting, smoking, drying, and fermenting food. It’s hard-core survivalist food for dirt-poor farmers.” Aside from essential survival, all those methods of preservation are about trying to prolong summer—making the taste of summer last.
While old-school Viking-style foods aren’t as necessary in a modern society, traditional Norwegian dishes like rakfisk (fermented fillets of freshwater trout salted and layered in wooden barrels to ferment), smalahove (salted and smoked sheep’s head), and pinnekjøtt (salted, air-dried sheep’s ribs) are such an essential part of the culture that they’re often enjoyed at celebratory and holiday meals. Reindeer have always been a central part of culture for the Sámi people, Europe’s oldest living indigenous culture, and reindeer meat is served in a variety of ways, including hearty stews. The country’s long history of fishing adds fresh seafood to the mix, and the clear and cold waters allow fish and shellfish to grow more slowly, while the cold winter weather preserves the freshness of the catch.
“I’ve seen authentic Viking cooking methods, and it’s humbling to come away from these areas and see the wealth of what they have and how simple, yet delicious it all is,” says Ramsay. But for him, the important standout is the elemental foundation of tastes that evokes a strong sense of place in this region of Norway. “For me, the ingredients are second to none.”