Part 2 of a 2008 Norway/Copenhagen travelogue
by Thor Iverson
Fortified by an enormous breakfast (where do they get all this food?) at the hotel, it’s back to the streets for another day of touristing. And, it turns out, sweating.
Kulturhistorisk Museum – After yesterday’s amazing Viking museum, I have high hopes for a continuation here. Alas, a lot of it’s kitschy and child-oriented, though there are some interesting artifacts from the Scandinavian and, oddly, Egyptian past.
Holmenkollen – A pretty subway/train ride up, and up, and up eventually deposits me in a very rural area. There are no signs to anything at the outdoor train station, and for a few minutes I wander aimlessly. Eventually, I decide to follow the crowds…and we walk up, and up, and up some more (sense a trend?) to what’s probably the most famous ski jump in the world. The Olympic logo’s still affixed to the entrance, but there’s virtually no one here, and the facility is a little eerie. I feel like I’m on top of the world…and about to jump off.
Inside, there’s a very impressive ski museum, and a long series of passageways leading to a rickety elevator that, allegedly, ascends to the top of the jump. Except, of course, it doesn’t. There’s stairs at the top, and so once more I’m climbing up, and up, and up until I’m quite sweaty and a little out of breath. Thankfully, there are rewards. The first is a commanding view over the city and the Oslofjord.
And the second? An absolute conviction that I will never, ever be a ski jumper…a conviction that grows with each glance down the track. People do this for fun? Really? Were they dropped on their heads as children?
There’s a virtual-reality ride back at the bottom that allegedly recreates the feeling of a jump (or a full-speed downhill), theoretically absent the 99% chance of death and/or shattered limbs, but at current dollar-krone exchange rates the tariff’s a little ridiculous for a few minutes of artificial fear.
The National Gallery – As with the Louvre and the Mona Lisa, I assume lots of people come here solely to see The Scream. Naturally, the museum puts it at the end of the gallery (and some of the most interesting non-Munch artwork at the other end), making it more likely that visitors will see something else that catches their eye along the way. I certainly do, though there does seem to be a preponderance of very small art in very small rooms, which only works in the absence of crowds. Thankfully – though perhaps not for the museum – that applies today.
Oslo Spiseforretning – After an ill-advised, long, and not particularly attractive walk from our hotel to this restaurant, we’re rather famished. It’s an elegant, compact, and active place, even though we arrive a bit on the early side and the real crowds don’t appear until about halfway through our meal. Our servers speak English well enough, but the menu’s only in Norwegian, so there’s a lot of back-and-forth necessary to figure out what we’ll eat. Ultimately, some of the details escape us.
Then the bread and butter arrive.
At breakfast, both have been very, very good. Here, they’re extraordinary. Especially the butters – yes, that’s plural…one very high in butterfat, the other just a touch lighter but organic, and both showing great individuality due, I presume, to the cows’ diets – which we go through like they’re an amuse bouche. It’s like sacrilege, but it must be said: not only are these butters as good as the rightly-vaunted Échiré, but the bread far exceeds anything…that’s anything…we’ve had in allegedly bread-crazy France in many, many years.
No wonder my Norwegian ancestors loved bread and butter so much.
I commence with a very salty cured ham (I think of elk, but translation fails on the details) in a salad, which offsets the salinity almost, but not quite, enough. There’s also a sort of pickled chanterelle mousse, served with a garnish of local, in-season chanterelles (unpickled); it’s a challenging but ultimately successful study in counterpoint. I follow with some sort of flavorful, flaky whitefish (again, we get no closer than “uer” in terms of specificity) in a classic dill and butter sauce with sautéed greens, and an absolutely devourable plate of reindeer loin and sausage served with beautifully-roasted potatoes. It’s clean, simple, confident food that succeeds or fails on the quality of its ingredients, and mostly it succeeds. And by Scandinavian standards, it’s a bargain.
The wine list is terrific, but unfortunately most of it is closed to a bearer of U.S. currency who’s on any sort of budget; there’s very little under $100, other than a few grossly-overpriced mass-market wines and some painfully young versions of marginally better wines. I end up choosing something that, while not exactly cheap, seems a bargain in comparison…even though its home is about as far from Oslo – geographically and culturally – as one can get while remaining within the confines of Europe.
Benanti 1999 Etna Rosso Rovitello (Sicily) – Prominent tannin is just starting to integrate, but this is still a stridently-structured wine in the forepalate, with a good measure of the wine’s signature ash not exactly bringing the softness. A silky fireplace wine of red fruit in an old oak drawing room, warming and delicious, with fine presence and a texture that grows more appealing as the wine aerates. Though there is a limit: at the end of a few hours’ sipping, the “closed for business” shingle is once more hung on the nail, and the wine’s qualities retreat behind a forbidding pressure door of tannin once again. This could use a longer nap.
Anselmi 2005 “I Capitelli” (Veneto) – Light peach cream. Delicate on its feet. Fun.
I ask for some help sorting through a selection of akavits, and instead of a conversation the waitress brings me two glasses – one a clear distillation of caraway that couldn’t possibly taste any more of the seed, the other an apparent “best seller” in Norway that tastes like fuel oil with a little oak influence. I’m not charged for either, which is most kind.
3 September 2008 – Oslo, Asker, Hønefoss, & Bergen, Norway
After yet another breakfast more appropriate for a team of lumberjacks (or Mr. Creosote) than an individual, we begin a day of train travel. Or so we think.
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.
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.
Thankfully, though, it’s still going where we need to. We learn this from an extremely helpful conductor, who examines our instructions and listens to our plight, makes some inquiries, and comes back on three separate occasions to tell us – this time in perfect and clear detail – what the problem is with our original train, exactly what we need to do when we get to Asker, and that we’ll still arrive in Bergen more or less on schedule.
In Asker, we board a small coach and wait for the arrival of the train we were supposed to have been on, after which we’re driven around some very pretty bodies of water (fjords? lakes? it’s hard to say without a map) for the better part of an hour, eventually arriving in Hønefoss, where we congregate with dozens of other temporarily-displaced travelers on a very remote-feeling station platform in the middle of nowhere.
Well, at least it’s a nice day.
The train to Bergen is old, uncomfortable, and pink. What’s that about? But the scenery is breathtaking, and by the time we finally pull into Bergen’s movie-set railway station, we’re a bit saturated with vistas. It’s no longer nice. In fact, it’s cold, it’s darkening, it’s raining…
…and we don’t have a map that points us to our hotel.
After a long wait in line, another ticket agent – none too graciously, I might add – sends us in the right direction. We slog down narrow sidewalks, splashing through puddles, and not noticing much of the rather adorable city around us. All we want is a warm room. And then, hopefully, food.
First Hotel Marin – Nicely poised between a warm Old World feel and slick modernity, with a very helpful staff. Our room, which is a touch noisy (it faces the street and its many restaurants and clubs), looks nice enough, but a few of its fixtures are broken (a lamp, the trouser press) or missing (an iron). Oh well, it’s only one night.
This is a restaurant not afraid to take a few risks, though it’s not a wacky, fusiony adventurer either. Mostly, the risks pay off. We start with a delicious watermelon gazpacho (not the first thing one thinks of while visiting Bergen, to be sure), followed by flawless scallops set, somewhat inventively, over an intense mushroom risotto. Scallops and truffles I’ve had,, many times, but the intensity and concentrated umami of this risotto is a rather striking, and yet successful, counterpoint to the scallops. And another contrapuntal accent: some sort of toasted nut dusts the plate, adding a textural contrast to the chew of the scallops and the creamy lushness (with a bite) of the risotto.
There’s a straightforward bresaola with salad and more nuts that’s fine but mostly indifferent. Then, on two plates, cusk (which has a Patagonian toothfish-like texture, fibrous but tender) with an absolutely terrific potato cake, and true wild duck of an intensity I can only recall from my hunting childhood (“watch for bullets,” our waitress warns, and in fact there is one tiny bit of shot in the second-to-last piece), offset by the acidic bite of a fruit-enhanced meat sauce, with dueling purées of ginger and pumpkin. A selection of Norwegian cheeses is indifferent (apparently, the Norwegian skill with butter doesn’t necessarily translate to more developed forms of dairy), though the accompanying fig bread is quite impressive. Despite an attempt to demur, I’m gifted with a free dessert of fruit-enhanced whipped cream and something I can only describe as a ball of hot fudge.
It’s a fine meal, albeit at about a 50% premium over what it would be in its most expensive Stateside incarnation. But that’s no surprise.
The wine list is lengthy and clever, and given sufficient funds (or indifference to same) would be a wonderland. Forced to choose between a mediocre young Alsatian riesling at about a 900% markup over full U.S. retail and what follows for just a few dollars more…well, there’s no choice, really:
R. López de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1981 Rioja Blanco (Center-North) – Served too cold, but that’s easily resolved, and the wine improves as it rises through the degrees. Wax, old maple furniture, immovable slabs of granite, and gentle hints of old lemon lead to a candle-flame finish. A little subdued vs. other semi-recent tastings, but still nice.
Copyright © Thor Iverson