Day 66: Norway
“When you first try it, it tastes like any other meat. But when you try it again, it tastes like the forest,” says Veshloemy, the amazing woman who is cooking a Norwegian dinner for us tonight. She’s talking about venison— that’s deer meat— and had to go through a lot of work to track this wonderful stuff down. “I’ve decided I want to be a Norwegian woman,” says Veshloemy’s friend and neighbor. “They can do anything. Hunt, cook, you name it.” If other Norwegian women are anything like Veshloemy, I’d have to agree. In Norway, hunting is still a functional part of life. A woman can go out into the woods, and a couple of hours later, come back with the corpse of a reindeer dragging behind them. “I don’t understand why people in this country are afraid of meats like reindeer. What, you just don’t like eating something named Rudolph?” She couldn’t actually track down any reindeer, but after convincing a game-serving restaurant to tell her the name of their distributor, and agreeing to make a twenty pound purchase, she was able to acquire some venison instead.
I’m in Veshloemy and Harald’s lovely home with my dad and stepmom, who all became friends due to having children in school together (Super Jake!). Originally, I was set to eat at the annual Sons of Norway lutefisk dinner tonight, before being offered a meal by these delightful Norwegians. Lutefisk is a lye cured fish, and Veshloemy says “Rather than having a type of fish usually eaten once a year by only half of the population, tonight we’re having a very typical dinner.” The evening begins with an appetizer in the kitchen of home made gravlaks— salmon cured with sugar, salt and dill. It is served on very thin, crispy flat bread, with a mustard sauce and, ideally, Norwegian goat cheese (“We couldn’t find the Norwegian goat cheese, so we’re using cream cheese instead, which has a similar effect”). After I break a few of the flat bread pieces while trying to spread on the cream cheese, the appetizers are composed and consumed. It’s amazing how well the flatbread takes the moisture, making it pliable and bridging all of the textures together. The fish itself does not have a strong taste of salmon, but has muted and subtle flavors more akin to a nice piece of sushi. Combined with the herbs, the tang from the cheese and the mustard sauce, it becomes a delicate and concise treat.
We sit down in the dining room with freshly baked, crusty and fluffy white bread and bowls of cauliflower soup. There’s a lovely creaminess which comes from the cauliflower, creating a mellow, calming and deeply satisfying soup which is really all about the primary ingredient itself. So often soups become a dumping ground for whatever you can find in your fridge— which can be great— but there’s something to be said for a soup that brings out the true nature of a single ingredient and makes it the focus of the entire dish. Eating an end of crusty bread which has been dipped into the warm, steaming liquid is a strangely humbling experience and makes you realize how delightful simplicity can be when executed properly. Already in awe, we toast the chef with glasses of beer and shots of akuavit, a Scandinavian liquor made from potatoes and spices, the most dominant of which is caraway, creating a smooth and crisp, yet hearty liquor.
But now it’s time for something really special. Venison tenderloin, which “…is a muscle that the deer use only for mating. So it’s very tender,” has been marinated then seared, rested, sliced and served red-rare with lingonberry jam and sautéed chanterelle mushrooms over a bed of chopped root vegetables and topped with a venison and vegetable gravy which has been dotted with sweet raspberries. Each plate also comes with fingerling potatoes (”…used for special occasions…”) and a full segment from a quartered and steamed head of cabbage, offering a light and healthy palate cleanse. Venison, like most game, has to be served rare or else it becomes quite tough, and the venison on my plate is cooked perfectly.
I take a bite and am absolutely blown away by how tender the meat is. You could probably cut it with a plastic spoon. I take another bite, chewing delicately as everything she said about it tasting “like a forest” comes true. It’s not just earthy. It’s woodsy. That’s the difference. This is an animal which has very clearly been eating things like berries and acorns. You can taste its diet in the meat. Glasses continue to be raised and I can’t keep from serving myself more and more food. I’m just totally in awe and this venison is one of, if not the best meat dishes I’ve had so far. Veshloemy has really made a brilliant meal for us today and I’ve decided that I, too, want to be a Norwegian woman.
Marinated fresh berries with home made whipped cream arrives in front of me, creating an ideal close to such a wonderful series of dishes. Light, refreshing and just plain tasty. Another great example of getting out of the way of the ingredients and highlighting them rather than changing them. “Do you like cigars?” asks Harald. “I do enjoy them on occasion,” I say, “but I haven’t had one in a really long time.” “These are some of the most expensive cigars you can buy in Cuba,” he says. “They’re Cohibas, but I stopped smoking, so now I can’t get rid of them.” Okay, geez. Twist my arm. I step outside and have a delightful cigar and a long conversation my father and a neighbor who has joined us for dinner. I’m in a state of total and complete happiness and want to stay here until they kick me out. But then I check the time and remember that GirlfriendBites’s birthday party with all of our friends is starting soon and I really do have to go. I offer my genuine thanks, which is a truly insufficient compensation for such a tremendous evening, and leave once again humbled by the kindness of others. The most staggering thing to me, though, is not just that people have been so nice to me, but that such skilled and talented people have been so nice to me. Who are all of these genuine, kind hearted and wonderfully skilled cooks and where did they come from? This particular one, it seems, came from Norway, which I’m now quite sure is a great place and one I’d like very much to visit.
Food Breakdown: Champagne, wine, beer, akuavit, gravlaks, cauliflower soup, cabbage, root vegetables, venison, berries and a cigar
Distance From My House: 10 miles