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Olympic Feasts : Isn't It Good: Norwegian Food

February 10, 1994|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Viking-style cured meats, lots of fish (including superb smoked salmon), sturdy soups, root vegetables, grainy breads, fine cheeses, rice porridge and sumptuous homemade cakes. These are some of the foods that make up the Norwegian table.

And at the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, the table may be almost as important a venue as the ice-skating arena.

To most Americans, Scandinavian food is a mystery. It is not only underrated but virtually ignored in the craze for Italian, spicy Thai and inventive contemporary cuisine.

"It's heavy food," says Anfin Ullern, Norway's consul general in Los Angeles. "You have to realize it's cold in Norway and you need strong food."

"Not a lot is very fancy," says Julie Hansen (no relation) of San Pedro, "but it's good food."

Southern California has a sizable Scandinavian population, including about 33,000 people of Norwegian birth or descent, according to Ullern's estimate. And they're keeping the traditional dishes alive and well.

Hansen, born and raised in Bergen, Norway, was one of several who gathered in a rustic, knotty-pine-lined Norwegian clubhouse to talk about the food. The site was Nansen Field in Rolling Hills Estates, a recreational center established in the mid 1940s for Norwegian seamen.

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In Norway, extravagant breakfast buffets are traditional at top hotels. Judging by the buffet the group set up against a lace-curtained window, this may be the most ample meal of the day. The large wooden table couldn't hold all the food. The centerpiece was spekeskinke , a dried cured ham that resembles prosciutto. Other plates held cold cuts such as sylte , which is Norwegian headcheese; rullepolse , a cured mutton roll; beef, pork and lamb salami, and leverpostei , pork liver pate.

Fish products included anchovies, lumpfish caviar, smoked cod roe paste and tantalizingly sweet pickled herring. A block of caramel-colored goat's milk cheese, called gjetost , stood on a cheese plate along with wedges of Jarlsberg, blue cheese and gammelost , an old-fashioned skimmed milk cheese that is eaten with syrup. There were spreadable cheeses too, flavored with bacon and caraway. Sliced hard-boiled eggs, sliced tomato and cucumber, pickled cucumbers and beets added fresh and piquant flavors.

Scandinavians are legendary bakers, and it took only a few fragrant breads, such as fruit-studded julekake (Christmas bread), rye and wheat Viking bread, and cardamom-raisin rolls to prove their talents. There were also crisp, cracker-like flatbreads that originated in the days when Viking seafarers packed along dried foods that could last for months. Jams, jellies, a crock of butter and hot coffee completed the buffet.

The specialty foods came from Norwegian Imports and Bakery in San Pedro, which is the largest Norwegian shop in Southern California. Along with basic ingredients, prepared dishes and baked goods, the shop stocks cookbooks, language tapes, art books, travel guides, cookware, Christmas decorations and at least one item actually made in Lillehammer--a Spar cheese slicer. The Lillehammer connection is owner Knut Kleve, whose family has a farm close to the town and who has taken a group there for the games.

If a mammoth Norwegian breakfast leaves any room for lunch or dinner, the dish to try is faar i kaal , which is mutton layered with cabbage and simmered until well done. Norwegians call this their national dish. The only seasonings are salt and pepper, but the flavor is amazingly full and needs no dressing up.

Lutefisk-- dried cod rehydrated in water and a lye solution--is more controversial. Many Norwegians love it; others hate it because of its chewy, gelatinous texture. There's even a whimsical mug imprinted with these words: " Lutefisk : Just Say No." According to Kleve, butter and bacon drippings should be spooned over the fish, making it richer fare than most of us are accustomed to.

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Poached salmon, fish pudding, roast pork and silky meatballs would be more congenial to American tastes. Main dishes are accompanied by plain vegetables such as boiled potatoes, mashed rutabaga, Brussels sprouts, green peas and carrots. Roast pork traditionally comes with boiled potatoes, surkaal (sliced cabbage cooked with vinegar, sugar and caraway seeds--a sort of Norwegian sauerkraut) and lingonberries patiently stirred with sugar to make a tart-sweet relish. Ribbe --pork rib enriched with fat--is the favorite cut for Christmas Eve dinner.

In Norway's frigid climate, meats and fish had to be preserved for winter use. That gave rise to lutefisk and cured meats such as spekeskinke ; fenelaar , salted, dried leg of lamb, and pinnekjott , dried mutton rib. Norwegian friends gathering for a few beers might slice off slivers of jerky-like fenelaar. Pinnekjott is steamed over birch branches.

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