7 October 2010

Matstreif Food Festival, Norway

One of Norway's largest annual food festivals, Matstreif, took place in Oslo the other week. This is the sixth year it has been run, and such was the popularity of last year's festival (over 120,000 people attended last year) that this year it was held over three days.

So it was that I found myself on a chilly October day in front of the austere looking City Hall, with Oslo Fjord acting as a beautiful backdrop, ready for some culinary exploration. The festival is sponsored by Innovation Norway, who help promote Norwegian business and, as such, the festival is a real showcase of the very best of Norwegian cuisine.

I only had a couple of hours there, which was nowhere near enough time to fully explore everything. This was a truly huge festival and I could have easily spent a whole day wandering round and stuffing my face. There was so much to see and do and eat. Artisan producers from all round the country were represented, there were live demonstrations from chefs, presentations, competitions and, of course, lots and lots of fantastic Norwegian food to try. Many of the same producers that attended the Oslo Farmers' Market were there and they were joined by dozens of others. In total there were about 140 exhibitors and over 3,000 different products.

So here's a quick snapshot of the food festival. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think I managed to capture most of the main highlights.

Here's a burger stand Norwegian style: elk burgers from Ommang Søndre, a bio-dynamic farm in Løten! I've eaten elk before so I thought I'd save myself for something else. But if you're wondering what it tastes like then think of a less gamey tasting venison with the texture of very lean beef.

Berry Syrups from Linnea Finnskogen
Lots of organic vegetables:

Striped beetroots, they look so beautiful!
I spotted what I thought was smoked trout and gleefully popped some in my mouth. I regretted it instantly. It turned out that this wasn't smoked trout, but was, instead, the infamous rakfisk, aka rotten fish. And it was... IN MY MOUTH. Rakfisk is fermented trout, and apparently people have gone blind and even been killed by badly prepared rakfisk. The sweet lady serving it smiled at me and expectantly asked me in Norwegian if I liked it. I didn't have the heart to say otherwise, so I swallowed the cold flaccid fish, grinned like a lunatic and said it was delicious, and then hurried to the fresh-pressed apple juice stall to try and get rid of the rancid taste in my mouth. It was singularly the worst thing I have eaten, with a noxious taste of rotten flesh and ammonia, and a smell like it forgot to wipe.

Rakfisk is perhaps one of Norway's oldest foods. The first record of it dates back to 1348, but the method of preserving fish by fermentation dates back thousands of years. Fish, usually trout but sometimes char or herring, is gutted, washed and soaked in vinegar for half an hour. The fish is then salted and placed in a bucket with a weighted lid for up to three months at around 4°C. In other words, the fish is allowed to rot.

Today, rakfisk is enjoying a resurgence in Norway, and it is considered quite fashionable to have rakfisk parties, where the fish is consumed with potatoes, onions, sour cream, flatbread, and plenty of akevitt. I think it's one of those foods that you have to have grown up eating in order to like it, as Norwegians seem to really enjoy it. It reminded me of the BBC TV show "Cooking in the Danger Zone", where the host, Stefan Gates, visits the Inuit in the Arctic circle and eats igunaq, which is rotten/fermented walrus. The sight of young Inuit kids gleefully eating igunaq made an amusing contrast to Gates, who was doing everything in his power not to throw up.

Rakfisk - looks so tasty, but packs quite a punch

More familiar territory now with some klippfisk, or salt cod. Although being one of the country's largest exports historically, it is not often eaten in Norway. For a quick and tasty klippfisk recipe, see here.
Klippfisk (salt cod)
I won't get into the whole whaling debate, but suffice it to say that Norway is a proud whaling nation, and there was plenty of whale meat on offer at the food festival. I tried some smoked whale meat, which was quite pleasant. It had a texture like tuna, with an unusual flavour of mildly smoked beef and fish. It's probably not something I'd jump at to eat again, but it was interesting nonetheless.

"Whale Wok": stir-fried whale
There were plenty of stalls that were cooking some amazing dishes, which created such a wonderful mix of aromas.
A hearty autumn stew with grilled pork loin
For my first lunch I had this delightful little plate of food, which comprised of a starter of pike mousse and smoked salmon roulade, meltingly tender roast pork from Brødr. Ringstad with herb butter and mashed potatoes, and a mousse of crowberries, blueberries and nýr (a sort of mild fresh cheese, like ricotta) from Grøndalen farm.

My second lunch was equally delicious; gratinated scallops served in their shells piping hot from the grill.

It doesn't get much better than Norwegian seafood, and there was plenty on display, including one of my favourites: arctic char from Vesterålen in the north of Norway.

Crab claws
Wonderfully sweet mussels from Snadder og Snaskum. Stay tuned for a simple pasta recipe in which I use these delicious molluscs.

This fella scared the life out of me. Not sure where it was caught though.

Come on in, the water's lovely!
Here is some cured mountain goat leg from Fjellgeit BA in north Gudbrandsdalen. Such is the craftsmanship that if it were 20 degrees warmer we could almost be in Spain eating jamón Ibérico.

Vinegars, jams, and honey
And now one of my favourites: warm svele fresh from the griddle, made by Anne Karins from Fagerstrand. Svele are thick, fluffy pancakes that are made with flour, eggs, sugar, buttermilk, and baking soda. They originate from the west coast of Norway, and if you ever take a ferry across one of the many fjords in this part of the country, you will invariably be served svele. Here they were served with sour cream and a blueberry jam. Soo yummy; I could have eaten many, many more.

Warm svele with sour cream and blueberry jam
Finally, what better to go with the svele than a luxuriously thick, dark espresso.

By all accounts, it seems that Matstreif 2010 was a resounding success, and the expanded format this year was a very welcome addition. This food festival was just the sort of thing that makes me so happy: seeing knowledgeable local producers and their delicious bounty of local food. Norwegian food often gets a bad reputation, and yes, sometimes it is justified, but I left Matstreif excited with the knowledge that with producers and products like these, Norway has so much good food to be proud about.

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