The food of Christmas

Our first year here, we had turkey for our Christmas day feast in line with the tradition that we were familiar with. The turkey bird is more of an Irish/British tradition. The Germans tend to go for goose but my husband had never been too bothered either way. He doesn’t mind what it is as long as you don’t have to chew on it for the rest of the day due to over-cooking, that’s his only request.

But you see, to me, turkey comes with the BIG get together, either family or friends, loads of people to feed and loads of noisy chatter while doing it.  With only 4 of us, turkey seemed decadent and a vestige of times past somehow, times when  we had good friends in London at the Christmas table with us.  So it was time to move on to something new and create new traditions when we moved here.

I discovered lutefisk inadvertently and that was a memorable experience. I can’t translate it into English because it doesn’t exist in English or any other language for that matter. Lutefisk is very traditionally Norwegian although you will find few people who eat it these days and many who have never even tasted it. What is it.. well, it’s food that is in a league of its own. It’s dried white fish, usually cod that goes through various stages of being soaked in water and lye to rehydrate it. At risk of boring you, lye is another name for potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, a great cleaning agent that you will probably find in soaps and detergents. It gives the fish a jelly like consistency that is quite special.

A friend from London was on a short-term contract in Oslo and was coming here for dinner in the run up to our first Christmas here. Niall is not a meat eater and so I thought I would cook something other than salmon this time.  Then I found this interesting looking fish in the supermarket that I had never seen before.  I bought it, I cooked it and served it and I think Niall thought we were trying to poison him. Think white gooey jelly tasting of last year’s fresh fish. All manners went out the window as we all started to retch a bit at the table. It was spectacularly awful, not helped by the fact that I hadn’t cooked it as I should have cooked lutefisk as I thought it was just normal if slightly odd fish. And to add insult to injury, it stank the house out for about 2 days afterwards. I am convinced that the oven was never quite it’s old strong self again.

Apparently the lutefisk tradition goes back hundreds of years, maybe even as far back as the Vikings but no-one knows for sure. In a nutshell, it was a way to preserve fresh fish for the winter months. I really believe lutefisk could well be the cockroach of food.  If civilisation was wiped off the planet, there would still be cockroaches eating a stockpile of lutefisk somewhere as both are fairly indestructible.

I have heard since that it is good wholesome stuff if cooked and served properly with the right accompaniments. I will try it again over the next 10 years or so, in a restaurant, cooked with pride by someone who loves the stuff. Even lutefisk deserves a chance at redemption.

The traditional Christmas day meal here depends on what part of the country you hail from but either way, it is usually a meat feast of the 4 legged variety. Ribbe are pork ribs and are traditional in eastern Norway including Oslo. We haven’t cooked these yet but maybe this year.

Pinnekjøtt are salted ( Oh my good God level of salt ) and dried lamb cutlets and are more traditional in West Norway.   We had these last year but the kids stuck to the julepølse or christmas sausages, and the grown-ups in the house had to indulge in serious thirst quenching after a feed of salted very tasty lamb chops. However, I am no expert on any of this as we haven’t had the real Norwegian Christmas day experience just yet.  From a kids perspective, a great milestone in the run up to Christmas is the arrival of pepperkaker in the shops. They are delicious sweet buttery ginger biscuits.We buy them but I think most Norwegians make them. I was in a friend’s house the other evening and as soon as I walked into the stua or living room, there was an amazing smell of cinnamon and ginger.  And hanging from a shelf were all of these big beautiful ginger biscuits in heart shapes with icing decorations on them, all homemade with love. With a lot more appreciation here for the homemade and the traditional than I ever had in London or even prior to that, it is a real eye-opener to see the effort that goes in to upholding traditions like this.

Something I had never heard of before coming here is aquavit, which is the Norwegian national drink and it usually accompanies your Christmas food, if you are an adult that is.  A spirit distilled from potatoes and herbs,  it is reasonably palatable and I see it as the Norwegian version of the Irish poitín, except it is legal and far less likely to kill you.  I still find it hard not to have facial contortions as it goes down but I think that takes years of practice.

And as for Niall, he got very busy with work and whenever we invited him around again, he was sadly very busy. Then suddenly, he was gone back to London, word had it that he left in a hurry.  We did ponder on whether the lutefisk had anything to do with the speed of his departure.

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