Browse Tag


Talk to the Haand

HaandBryggeriet “Norwegian Wood” (Norway) – Smoked ale with juniper. And it tastes like? Smoked ale with juniper. More the former than the latter. And, too, there’s oak aging. Which makes everything taste just a little butterscotched. It’s not overwhelming or actively unpleasant, but I’m yet to be convinced by (here comes a made-up-on-the-spot percentage that’s still not far off the mark) 99.9% of such brews. This has so many oak-masking and oak-integrating things going on that I’m inclined to nudge this up to the precipice of that .1% But I still think the beer would have been better without the wood. (2/11)

HaandBryggeriet Barrel-Aged Porter (Norway) – In this case, the porter is aged in aquiavit barrels. OK, so I like porter. I’m Norwegian, and am supposed to like aquiavit. I should like this, right? Well…I almost do, which is becoming my predictable reaction to this brewery’s work. The porter is of a surpassing quality, deep and rich, like a much-reduced broth for an excellent stew. But the barrel-smoke is very marked here, so much so that the final effect is more than of an actual smoke beer rather than a porter. The aquavit signature is mostly expressed as a trailing apostrophe of heated sweetness, although I think some of that sweetness is also the wood. Basically, if one absolutely insists on barrel-finished beer, this and others from this brewery are fine examples of the genre. But I’d still prefer the unwooded versions, were they to exist. (2/11)

Hansa cross Africa

Hansa Marzen Gold (Norway) – Wait a minute. We were just in Norway. As a matter of fact, in Bergen, where this beer is allegedly made (though I’ve no idea if this particular bottle was actually brewed there; it seems unlikely). I’m glad I didn’t taste it there, and I wish I hadn’t tasted it here in South Africa. It’s horrid, like Miller Genuine Draft but with less flavor. Ugh. (11/08)

An odd encounter

[bryggen tunnel]Combine two of my favorite things (wine and travel), and a third opportunity regularly presents itself: meeting similarly-disposed folk all over the world. And so here I am, getting into the car of someone I’ve never met outside the confines of online fora, collecting a few more city-dwellers, and driving up and out of the city to that someone’s home for dinner. The prelude to some Sideways-like slasher flick? I hope not…

…continued here.

Murder in Myrdal!

[fjaerland panorama]Clinging to the edge of a steep, forested hillside about halfway through the journey, our train grinds to a surprisingly rapid halt. There’s no announcement of the reason, not even in Norwegian, and heads are craning. Presently, we see the conductor walking past our window. We peer forward, then back; there are sheep scampering down the hillside, a few men and dogs doing their best to herd them down the precarious slope.

Our guess is correct: the train has hit a sheep, and there’s a collection of shepherds and train personnel gathered a few dozen meters behind us. As we’re pondering the length of the delay, and whether or not it will affect the scheduling of our onward journey, the conductor approaches our window once more. He yells ahead, and in response the train inches forward for a minute…just far enough to take us out of a line-of-sight view of what’s about to happen. For now, gripped in each of the conductor’s hands, is a pair of rather fierce-looking hatchets.

…continued here.

Ski patroll

[ski troll]The problems start at the Oslo train station. I’d bought our tickets to Bergen the day before, and we arrive at the station with our bags and plenty of time to spare. But when we finally reach the giant schedule board to figure out where to go, our train is the only one without a departure track. This continues until said departure is close enough that we’re in danger of missing the train should it appear on one of the more distant tracks.

I approach the ticket desk with my questions, but am greeted with possibly the only person in all Oslo who doesn’t speak very much English. Eventually, she writes some things down on a piece of paper and gestures emphatically. If I understand her correctly – and there’s reason to suspect that I don’t – we’re supposed to get on a different train, get off that train and onto a bus, and then get back on the train that was supposed to take us to Bergen all along.

Um, OK.

We head for the indicated track, and seeing our destination town – Asker – mentioned on the side of an arriving train, we board.

It’s not the right train.

…continued here.

The singing ship, sanguine

[reflection]For a chain hotel not exactly known for its luxury, [this] is more than serviceable, though it’s crawling with businesspeople and has to turn several desperate latecomers away at the front desk. There’s a bar in the lobby, and a really impressive breakfast buffet in the restaurant across the hall. I mean really impressive: six kinds of charcuterie, five kinds of cheese (including the ubiquitous gjetost), various herrings, anchovies, caviar (though only the squeeze-tube kind) pickled vegetables and salad greens, creamy “salads” that only a Scandinavian or Minnesotan could love, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, cut fruit, yogurt, cereals and muesli, fair coffee, fine tea, juices, several kinds of milk, three preparations of (real) eggs, terrific bacon, sausages, meatballs, mini-waffles, jams and spreads, a huge block of excellent salted butter, and an assortment of five or six fresh-that-morning breads (most some variation on whole grain, and many with seeds) that is rather breathtaking in its quality. As a result of this early-morning bounty, at hotel after hotel, I’m able to avoid eating lunch anywhere in Norway…which, given that in some places a bowl of fish soup and a beer can cost nearly $100, is a very, very good thing.

…continued here.

Separate wines, worlds apart

[upended bottle]I just got back from a trip to Norway and Denmark, and other than a fun night with some wine geeks in Bergen, wine was only occasionally on the menu. Not that it wasn’t available. In fact, many of the restaurants at which I dined had wine lists astonishing for their breadth and depth. Unfortunately, there was another astonishing thing about them: price.

The way wine is monopolized and, more importantly, taxed in the Scandinavian countries means that “everyday wine” doesn’t really exist as a category. Sure, the wines that would fit the bill elsewhere are technically available, but at shocking markups. $85 for Trimbach’s yellow-label riesling. $82 for the Hugel “Gentil.” And so forth. Naturally, the weak dollar doesn’t help, but even a strong dollar wouldn’t put much of a dent in these prices, and neither country is exactly cheap to begin with.

There’s a pair of silver linings on the edge of this gilt cloud, however, and one is that more expensive wines are not priced by demand, as they are in most competitive markets. Thus, the $75 Burgundy that shoots up to $300 in the States after a high score from some critic not only stays at its release price (albeit one higher than $75), but isn’t impossible to source, either. (Though there are limits to this; even in the monopoly systems, there are favored customers and “off-list” wines that end up in the hands of a chosen few.) The other is that restaurants seem fairly willing to cellar wines for a time, which means that while a 2005 version of a $20 wine may be a ridiculous $110 on a wine list, the 1990 version of that same wine may be only a few dollars more, making it commensurate – or even a value – compared to a similar wine on an American wine list.

The Bergen winos’ response to all this was to claim, only half-jokingly, that they “can’t afford to drink anything but the best.” I lived there, I’d be forced to do the same; anything else would be economically foolhardy. And it’s not like drinking really good wines is something to be upset about.

But I admit that I would miss the other kind of wine. The kind of everyday, non-intellectualized stuff that has, historically, formed the foundation of traditional wine-drinking cultures. I’m not just talking about the increasingly anecdotal jugs of local Côtes-du-Rhône that lubricated the equally anecdotal French peasantry, but about the wines both artisanal and industrial that form the bulk of what most people buy and drink on a daily basis.

I would miss this sort of wine because a daily glass (or two…or sometimes three) is, for me, a fundamental part of my enjoyment of a meal. Not all food embraces wine, and not all meals allow consumption, but its presence is always to be preferred to its absence.

Perhaps more importantly, I would miss these wines because I firmly believe they put the better bottles in their proper context. Yes, it’s possible to drink only great wines, and I know people outside Norway who do. In fact, I know people who refuse to drink anything other than the best of the best. I can’t fault them for doing so, but this behavior just isn’t for me. Not only do I enjoy the simple pleasures of humble food and wine in their proper context, but I find that I appreciate the qualities of better wine more keenly when those experiences have a broad and deep foundational perspective. The components and interweavings that make great wines great are all the more obvious when the alternatives have been internalized. And those who drink only the superstars can, occasionally, lose perspective on what they drink, fixating on the niggling details but losing sight of the fact that they are quibbling over degrees of greatness.

I don’t know if there’s much impetus to change, as both countries seem to have well-entrenched beer cultures that satisfy the needs of the lower end (and in Denmark, at least, some really extraordinary things are happening with that beer; watch this space, eventually, for information on one of them). But I do know that I was happy to uncork a bottle of something uncomplicated and moderately priced when I returned home. I’d actually drank better wines on the rare occasions I’d imbibed in Scandinavia. But there’s such a thing as comfort wine, you know.