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After nearly a year and a half living in Trondheim, it’s possible to reflect on a few aspects of the Norwegian experience that, for expats or travellers, might be novel. Our experiences are Trondheim-centric, so these reflections are only loosely applicable to Norway as a whole. Also, you should take into account our reference frame; we previously lived in Australia and we have made regular visits to Europe during our sojourn in Norway.
When we arrived and saw the cost of eating (and drinking) out in Trondheim we realised that we should cook at home even more than was our habit and only buy duty free alcohol. In that context, perhaps the area that has the greatest day-to-day impact on us is the Norwegian situation with Groceries.
The comparison is mostly negative, both because the range of groceries in Norway is limited and the prices are generally high. Nearly everything costs more in Norway than Australia (according to NUMBEO, groceries are 25% cheaper in Canberra than in Trondheim) and elsewhere in Europe, but the disparity is particularly high for many fruit and vegetables.For other items, like clothes, the difference is trivial, especially clothes from chains that operate outside of Norway.
It’s not just taxes, wages and transportation that push the prices of food up – the weather limits the length of the growing season and there is very little arable land in a terrain that alternates between mountains and bogs; only about 3% of land in Norway is classed as cultivated, compared with over 10% globally.
For us, the contrast is felt most in fruit and vegetables, which – without exaggeration – form the bulk of our diet. Eggplants, in particular, we miss, as they were regular features of our cuisine in Australia and, while the prices fluctuated, the quality was good and the prices during the peak seasonal glut were irresistible.
Here they are alarmingly expensive and consistently poor quality. Faced with the dilemma of overweight luggage at Riga airport before our return flight to Trondheim, we dumped our 1kg of (leaking) honey and kept the 2+ kg of beautiful, individually wrapped eggplants we had bought from the supermarket there.
Pumpkins, too, are a rarity here in Trondheim, tending only to appear for Halloween, which is an increasingly popular festival that some Norwegians embrace with vigour. Being intended for display (houses that welcome trick-or-treaters will be marked with a decorated pumpkin out the front), the pumpkins are large and mostly tasteless and the variety of pumpkins available is small compared to Australia. A Norwegian friend who lives on a farm told us about his neighbour who tried to grow pumpkins (gresskar) commercially in Norway but couldn’t find a market for them so he ripped out the crop and grew something else instead. From a great desire to eat pumpkins we also walked over 20km return trip to Tiller to buy pumpkins from an Asian grocery store that stocks them outside of Halloween but they were also tasteless so we haven’t bothered to do that again.
Norway only really grows cereal grains, root vegetables, apples, berries, as well as producing dairy products, fish and meat. Nearly 37 times as much open field area is used for grains as is used for field grown vegetables (except potatoes, which are given 1.5 times the space of all other vegetables combined). So most fruit and vegetables are imported. In Australia we bought our fruit and vegetables from a fresh food market and we tried to buy the local, seasonal and less expensive options, which meant that the quality varied a lot.
The benefits of relying on imported produce, in Norway, is that the price, availability and quality are somewhat consistent, though not always good. Bananas, for example, are very affordable and in constant supply, imported from places like Costa Rica. Capsicum (peppers), too, are of good quality and always available, though don’t enjoy seasonal pricing.
It’s not all negative, however, locally-grown foods are of good quality and reasonably affordable, particularly the oats and potatoes. More than once we’ve heard the claim that a particular food in Norway is better than elsewhere in the world – strawberries, chocolate, milk, for example. In fact, the dominant Norwegian milk company (there are only two main players), Tine, features the somewhat unNorwegian slogan, “Kansje verdens fineste melk” (“Perhaps the world’s finest milk” … the “perhaps” part accords with the Scandinavian, Janteloven-like trait of not bragging, and is also evident in the slogan of the Danish beer-giant, Carlsberg: “Probably the best beer in the world”).
And indeed, the milk is different here, perhaps, as someone suggested to me, it is less pasteurised than the Australian variety. Or it could be because the non-organic varieties are infused with vitamin D, to help Norwegians survive the darkness.
With produce, however, it is likely that it is the unique growing conditions that give the berries, apples and even the potatoes their remarkable edge. As Norwegian botanist and “father of horticulture in Norway”, Fredrik Christian Schübeler, wrote in 1862, the particular combination of temperature, day-length and other growing conditions results in more aromatic, darker and sweeter produce, particulary for edible tree fruits.
In fact, it is interesting to note that Schübeler wrote, “notwithstanding that most of our fruits have a sourish taste, yet this deficiency is counterbalanced by the agreeable flavour imparted to them by their increased aroma, as e.g. in strawberries and apples”.
Schübeler was right to single out the strawberries and apples, which in our experience, are the two standout Norwegian fruits when they’re in season; the flavour is so intense they have to be eaten in moderation. Conversely, the famous Norwegian cloud berries, known as ‘molter’, proved entirely disappointing. We suspect it’s a mix of nationalism and rarity (they only grow in alpine or Arctic swamps and they cannot be cultivated) that elevates their status (and cost) beyond what their taste and texture justifies (perhaps that’s why they’re often eaten with sugar, cream or custard).
Not surprisingly, Norwegian jams are also fantastic, though limited in range. They’re somewhat unique, in that their fruit content (often at least 50% of more, sometimes up to 80%) is much higher than what we’re used to and some varieties contain little, if any, pectin.
In fact, when Norwegians make jam at home they use something called frysepulver, which is sugar and xantham gum. The jam is not cooked, but frozen in small batches then eaten within one week of defrosting. Many Norwegians also do not sterilise their equipment. I know from making sugary-fruit goodness in Australia that without sterilisation, mould took over in less than a week, even in the refrigerator but the climate is very different here. In the supermarket the main varieties of jams are berry-based, and while there are some jams from other fruits (apple, orange, apricot, cherry, peach) it is very uncommon exotic blends like those in the Swiss Mövenpick range.