5 May 2011

Where's the (fresh) Beef? The Current State of Food in Norway

For those that think everyday food in Norway is a never-ending parade of glistening fresh seafood, wild game, root vegetables and berries, or smoked this and hay-baked that made by sweet-smelling blonde maidens, I have disappointing news for you.

A recent government commission found that Norway has the poorest selection and highest prices of food in Europe. The reasons for this are varied, but this article (and this more recent one) describes them quite well. To sum it up: protectionist import tariffs, huge farm subsidies, supermarket monopolies, and consumer indifference have all conspired to create a lacklustre daily food experience in this country. I want, therefore, to show you the other, more typical side to the execrable state of mainstream food in this country.

Now don't get me wrong, it is possible (just about) to find some fantastic food here. There are a handful of stunning high-end restaurants in Norway (e.g. here, here, and here) and for a hefty price you can enjoy truly world class food at these places. There are a few fantastic Norwegian artisanal producers, whose goods you can find at sporadic farmers' markets, food festivals and some shops. There are also stores that sell some amazing produce from around the world, but often at prices that put them beyond all except the wealthiest of Oslo residents or the most homesick of ex-pats – Spanish chorizo for €62 per kg or Italian bresaola for €174 per kg, anyone?

But these are the exception and not the rule, and the everyday reality of eating in Norway is very different indeed. Food in Norwegian supermarkets is shockingly expensive and of a lower quality and variety than you're likely to find elsewhere in Europe.

The situation gets worse the further from Oslo you travel, where it can often be difficult to find a good variety of fresh food. As recently as the early 1990's it was difficult to find fresh chicken or fish in Norwegian grocery stores. However, even today if you visit a supermarket in Norway you'll see that much of the floorspace is devoted to frozen, dried, or canned/tubed foods. And much of what appears fresh has been previously frozen. This post (and this one) by Aussie blogger L-Jay living in the far north of the country highlights some of the challenges she faces in getting fresh food.

The geographic focus of food also seems to lie very much outside of Norway. I know there are obvious limitations about what can be grown locally here, and the simple climatic and economic reality is that the majority of Norway's food has to be imported, but it seems there's a general lack of interest (and perhaps confidence) in quality homegrown cuisine and produce. Why is this? As I've mentioned before, Norway has some stunning local produce, but most people seem very much indifferent to this local bounty and tend to favour price and convenience over quality and taste.

I've mentioned the clutch of truly excellent restaurants in Norway, but good quality eateries serving food at a cheaper price point are as rare as hen's teeth. It is all too easy to spend NKr 250 (€32 / $48) on a totally detestable main course. Where are the restaurants serving good food at moderate prices that you find in countries all over the world?

So in the belief that pictures can often speak louder than words, here is a little compilation of photos I have made to highlight the current sorry state of affairs. To save any blushes, names of places have been withheld.

Warning: Some of the following images contain distressing scenes of crimes against food. Viewer discretion is advised.

Hot dogs – the national dish of Norway? Much of the meat section in supermarkets is devoted to this processed junk

Frozen pizzas – the other national dish of Norway? A huge amount of supermarket freezer space is dedicated to frozen pizzas.

Lots of floor space dedicated to Tex Mex nonsense at this store. You can make infinitely better (and cheaper) tacos from scratch at home.

Tinned reindeer meatballs and something called, er, "Bog" (it's like spam).

Spare ribs: "meat" and E-numbers – ready to eat after only 3 minutes in the microwave.

A variety of pre-cooked meatballs on the left. There was hardly any fresh chicken at this store; instead there was lots of pre-cooked chicken labelled simply as "salad meat".

Tins of meat paste and fish.

Ready-to-go kebabs! Also, lungemos – literally "lung mash" – pig hearts, tongues and cow lungs all mashed up.

So what is the point of all this you may ask? Well, apart from feeling the need for a little rant, I'm hoping to get some sort of dialogue going about the status quo. Are people satisfied with the current state of affairs of food in Norway? How can we go about changing it? Sure, things have slowly been improving over the years, and yes this might be a nice middle-class 'developed world' problem to have, but the situation today in Norway is far from satisfactory. I'm a firm believer in the collective power of the consumer and if enough people make enough noise, then maybe we can make a difference for the better. Here's hoping.