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NORWEGIAN NOSTALGIA

From Salmon Smoking to Lindstrøm’s space disco via frugality in Oslo

THE NORWEGIAN DJ AND PRODUCER LINDSTROM'S THIRD ALBUM, Smalhans, was a record that helped spark an unusual spell of national nostalgia. In this country, a new release by Lindstrøm is always a bit of an occasion; as the sonic conjurer of Norwegian space disco – or fjord disco, as those with a stronger geographical bias like to call it – he is rightfully credited for putting Norway on the electronic music map.

‘Smalhans' is an archaic Norwegian word that stems from 17th century Germany, translates as ‘frugal’ and indicates a life getting by on just the basics. It’s a word that rings of a time long before top-ranking living standards and soaring GDP rates – a time when Norway was practically a developing country, and scarcity was the norm rather than the exception.
 

 

These recipes embody the kind of nostalgia running as an undercurrent through the Norwegian cultural consciousness, in that they represent a time when quality trumped quantity
 

 

Lindstrøm elaborated on this back-to-basics vibe by naming each track after a traditional Norwegian dish, all spelt out phonetically  (”Fāār-I-Kāāl”, ”Vā-Flę-R”) as if to accentuate the very Norwegian-ness of it all.

Incidentally, in the same week he released his record, a new restaurant by the same name opened in one of Oslo’s more affluent areas. Neither were aware that the other had chosen the same moniker, but Smalhans (the restaurant) offered a menu that paid homage to the Norwegian husmannskost – the native term for staple diet, which also suggests food that is plain and simple. Similar to Lindstrøm’s tracklist, it put a strong emphasis on customary courses, all served in a homely dining room decked out with vintage furniture. It was a curious coincidence that didn’t go unnoticed: in a capital with a population south of 600,000, anticipated music releases and trendy new eateries are rarely offered up in the same week, and even more unusual was this credible tribute to the decidedly unfashionable Norwegian culinary heritage. The harsh truth is, for a country of such excellent raw ingredients (fjords full of fresh fish and mountains strewn with succulent berries and tender reindeer meat, to paint a picture the tourist board would sign off), our traditional menu is pretty bland.

FOOD YOU APPRECIATE PRIMARILY FOR ITS SENTIMENTAL VALUE, like your grandmother’s meat cakes (an overgrown version of Sweden’s better known and more delicate-looking meatballs) served steaming hot with boiled potatoes and mashed peas. Or fårikal, a fairly drab-looking sheep and cabbage stew, which nonetheless tastes heavenly on a cold winter’s day. Then there’s pinnekjøtt, a personal favourite which literally translates as ‘stick meat’, due to the smoked lamb racks being steam cooked on a bed of birch twigs – a preparatory ritual originally intended to prevent moulding on the meat.

These recipes embody the kind of nostalgia running as an undercurrent through the Norwegian cultural consciousness, in that they represent a time when quality trumped quantity. Not because it felt virtuous, but because nothing else made sense. To the average 19th century Norwegian, there was no such as thing as lavish dining; smoking salmon and curing mutton had little to do with experimentation and everything to do with efficiency. Whether or not this burst of wistfulness gave Smalhans (the restaurant) a lucrative advantage is hard to say, but it certainly still enjoys a status as go-to spot in Oslo. And while it may have adopted a successfully humble cooking philosophy, less has been done to incorporate the notion of thriftiness into the pricelist. The eponymous, “affordable” lunch menu might be considered reasonable by Norwegian standards, but at £45 without drinks it doesn’t exactly feel like a steal.
 

 

While Sweden and Denmark are frequently praised for their “pared-back” design aesthetic, or “addictive, blood-on-snow” crime fiction, Norway is seldom mentioned beyond the scope of its gargantuan pension fund and its consequently generous welfare system
 

 

Then again, there might never have been a better time to reflect on what values are worth paying a premium for. This rarely feels more acute than when revered international affairs magazines publish lengthy analysis on “flourishing Nordic culture”, and Norway is left out like the giant gold-coated elephant in the room. While Sweden and Denmark are frequently praised for their “pared-back” design aesthetic, or “addictive, blood-on-snow” crime fiction, Norway is seldom mentioned beyond the scope of its gargantuan pension fund and its consequently generous welfare system. But oil, as Norwegians remind each other frequently, will not last forever, and that can be troublesome for the collective cultural identity. As the owner of one hip coffee shop put it: “Norwegian design deserves a spot among the Scandinavian classics. Our most iconic designs were renowned in their time, but today we just lack the awareness. Norway found oil and didn’t have to export cultural goods like our neighbour countries.”

Perhaps that sneaking realisation explains the upsurge of jovial 1950s wool jumpers in Oslo’s bars and restaurants, and the cropping up of entire magazines dedicated to the Norwegian rural dream. Or maybe it is the fact that we’re in a time of cultural commemoration: 2013 celebrated the 150th anniversary of Edvard Munch, Norway’s greatest artistic legacy. 2014 paid homage to Alf Prøysen, one of our most beloved folk singer-songwriters. Whatever the source of the recent revival of sonic and gastronomic simplicity, that’s got to call for a little national romanticism.
 

 

In a capital with a population south of 600,000, anticipated music releases and trendy new eateries are rarely offered up in the same week
 

 

These recipes embody the kind of nostalgia running as an undercurrent through the Norwegian cultural consciousness, in that they represent a time when quality trumped quantity. Not because it felt virtuous, but because nothing else made sense. To the average 19th century Norwegian, there was no such as thing as lavish dining; smoking salmon and curing mutton had little to do with experimentation and everything to do with efficiency. Whether or not this burst of wistfulness gave Smalhans (the restaurant) a lucrative advantage is hard to say, but it certainly still enjoys a status as go-to spot in Oslo. And while it may have adopted a successfully humble cooking philosophy, less has been done to incorporate the notion of thriftiness into the pricelist. The eponymous, “affordable” lunch menu might be considered reasonable by Norwegian standards, but at £45 without drinks it doesn’t exactly feel like a steal.

Then again, there might never have been a better time to reflect on what values are worth paying a premium for. This rarely feels more acute than when revered international affairs magazines publish lengthy analysis on “flourishing Nordic culture”, and Norway is left out like the giant gold-coated elephant in the room. While Sweden and Denmark are frequently praised for their “pared-back” design aesthetic, or “addictive, blood-on-snow” crime fiction, Norway is seldom mentioned beyond the scope of its gargantuan pension fund and its consequently generous welfare system. But oil, as Norwegians remind each other frequently, will not last forever, and that can be troublesome for the collective cultural identity. As the owner of one hip coffee shop put it: “Norwegian design deserves a spot among the Scandinavian classics. Our most iconic designs were renowned in their time, but today we just lack the awareness. Norway found oil and didn’t have to export cultural goods like our neighbour countries.”

Perhaps that sneaking realisation explains the upsurge of jovial 1950s wool jumpers in Oslo’s bars and restaurants, and the cropping up of entire magazines dedicated to the Norwegian rural dream. Or maybe it is the fact that we’re in a time of cultural commemoration: 2013 celebrated the 150th anniversary of Edvard Munch, Norway’s greatest artistic legacy. 2014 paid homage to Alf Prøysen, one of our most beloved folk singer-songwriters. Whatever the source of the recent revival of sonic and gastronomic simplicity, that’s got to call for a little national romanticism.

Hansen & Lydersen cure fish in North London in Bruno Ramos's film whilst in New York Hanne Cecilie Norset Christiansen writes about Smalhans basics

 

Hanne Christiansen is a Norwegian journalist currently based in New York. Her work has appeared in Dazed & Confused, NOWNESS and Vice Nordics, among others. For more salmon on wood action, check out Hansen & Lydersen online. Bruno Ramos is an award-winning Portuguese filmmaker based in London.

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