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Eat: Bergen & the Sognefjord

Sweet brown cheese, sour soups, bitter berry ciders and seafood dishes galore — the Sognefjord region of Western Norway is home to a deliciously distinct local cuisine. Go for the scenery, stay for the food

Eat: Bergen & the Sognefjord
Bryggen's colourful waterside buildings. Image: Robin Strand

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The goats are gathered at the gate — 110 of them, waiting to pass through and clamber down the hill to another pasture. Braying noisily, they eye us inquisitively, before scampering on. Three little snow-white kids fall behind — their nosiness has gotten the better of them. After we trek a mile further up the hill, their owner, Anna Karina Hatling, tells us not to worry, they don’t ever get lost.

This is Skjerdal, a ‘summer farm’, high on a hillside above the fjords — a traditional group of log cabins, occupied solely in the longer, warmer days of summer — where Anna Karina produces goat’s milk and cheeses, including the Norwegian speciality brunost, a brown cheese. To get there, we skirt Sognefjord — the country’s longest and deepest fjord — in a rigid-inflatable boat before landing at the jetty and being guided up the steep path.

Anna Karina makes cheese twice a day, immediately after her goats are milked. “Brown cheese is made from whey. We cook it till the floating proteins crystallise and caramelise. All the water evaporates until it becomes almost like a gingerbread dough,” she explains, before handing us each a thin-cut slice of very sweet cheese with a cryptic proviso: “This is not a cheese. It’s a brown cheese.”

On a balcony overlooking the farm and the fjord beyond, we lunch on Anna Karina’s various cheeses — soft and hard, salted, unsalted and brown — and sample her goat charcuterie, as well as locally-grown salad and juice from Anna’s apples. Dessert is farmhouse-made pancakes, brown cheese and raspberry jam.

Further along the fjord, just outside the town of Balestrand, we walk to Ciderhuset with Age Eitungjerde, stopping at St Olaf’s Church (also known as the English Church). Built in 1897 in the traditional Norwegian ‘stave’ style, it’s the inspiration for the coronation scene in the film Frozen, in which Elsa is crowned Queen of Arendelle. At Age’s orchards, we taste ciders, including a pleasant young one made with rhubarb, redcurrants, raspberries and hops. “To make a cider you need a bitter taste,” Age explains. “Fifty years ago, I imported buds from Normandy and Somerset and have crafted around 1,000 of these special varieties.”

Age also produces plum and apple brandies and the Norwegian spirit aquavit, as well as apple juice (it’s here that Anna Karina’s is pressed and bottled). After our tasting, Age leads us to a door and whispers, “Brandies need quiet. I’d like you to be as still as possible when you pass through.”

Inside is a whitewashed, cave-like room with a curved ceiling. One wall is lined with casks and two others have benches draped with sheepskin rugs. We sit down beneath a candelabra. Age takes a deep breath and begins to sing Salve Regina (a Marian hymn from the Middle Ages) in a clear, beautiful voice that reverberates in waves around the room and up and down our bodies.

We take the boat back to Bergen with the sound of his song ringing in our hearts. Founded in 1070 as a trading post, the city has in recent times become one of the richest in Europe, thanks to the oil and gas industry. It’s by no means cheap but it is beautiful, the air so fresh and the summer nights light and long. We wander the stalls of the quayside fish market, trying king crab, hot smoked salmon, local berries, tinned fish, cloudberry jams, caviar and cured whale meat.

New Nordic is, of course, the cuisine du jour and while Bergen has no Michelin-starred chefs, it has fine restaurants making the best of a beneficent larder. Local ingredients — some foraged — take centre stage at Lysverket, a sleekly designed space in an art gallery next to Lille Lungegårdsvann, a city-centre lake with fountain. Here we try a delicate version of the city’s famous creamy-yet-sour fiskesuppe (fish soup) — with hake quenelles, leek, onion and carrot. We work our way through a set menu featuring exquisite grilled langoustine, black garlic and the season’s first tomatoes, followed by a dessert consisting of a fat, fresh-fried doughnut, rhubarb chutney and buttermilk ice cream.

In the city’s old meat market, we discover Restaurant 1877 — decorated with dark wood and charity shop finds — where chef Christer Økland tells us he aspires not for a Michelin star but to simply produce the best food with the best ingredients. The sourdough bread is fine and crusty and served with whipped butter. There’s a set menu here too, changing every five weeks or so, according to the season. The typically Norwegian amuse bouche of marinated herring with horseradish cream on wafer-thin crispbread is beautiful, but our favourite is a little stone pot filled with brown crab, crème fraîche, celery royale, roasted rye breadcrumbs and pickled red cabbage (“natural yet powerful,” says Christer).

At 11pm, we wander out into the not-yet twilight, past the brightly coloured row of Hanseatic houses that is Bryggen, taking a passageway inside to explore the warren where merchants lived and traded so many years ago. There are cafes, bars and shops selling all kinds of startling animal pelts. Bergen is over-run with cruise lovers, but at this time of day they’re mostly tucked up in their cabins.

Down by the wharf, we settle down to watch the long day end, a glass of locally brewed 7 Fjell beer in hand. Our wallets are dented, but boy has it been worth it. visitnorway.co.uk

Crab dish at Restaurant 1877

Crab dish at Restaurant 1877

Four places for a taste of Bergen

Bryggen Tracteursted
Candelabras are one of the few adornments in this traditional, wood-lined room. The menu offers Bergen fish soup and ‘Norwegian tapas’, aquavit-marinated salmon from Svanøy, three types of homemade pickled herring, breaded cod tongues with remoulade, and meatballs. An a la carte menu features dishes such as pan-fried stockfish and reindeer fillet with goat’s cheese.
How much: Three courses without wine is £43 per person; tapas costs from £5 a plate.

Chef and co-owner Christopher Haatuft offers a seafood-heavy set menu of either four or seven courses, plus smaller plates in the bar. I enjoyed mackerel and lovage with grilled sourdough flatbread and cultured butter, and a tartare of minke whale with a ‘pickle-fried oyster’. Other dishes included langoustine, crab, mackerel and tusk (like cod) with roasted fennel, potatoes and dill sauce. Each dish can be matched with a wine.
How much: Four courses without wine is £51 per person, seven courses, £67.

Located on Holmen island, with epic fjord and mountain views. The ‘meteorological menu’ changes with the weather and season and the owner dives for the scallops and other shellfish, which are all stored live in a ‘seafood tower’. Meals begin with a mug of Bergen fish soup. My main of tusk with lentil sauce and mussel stock with roast parsnip was followed by rhubarb sorbet on lemon thyme cake with white chocolate cream.
How much: Three-course ‘meteorological menu’ with boat trip from £67 per person.

Restaurant 1877
Set in a former meat market at the edge of the Bryggen, the focus here is on traditional Norwegian food and produce from the west coast. A large open kitchen creates some of the city’s best food, including mountain trout with kale and lye roe, wild garlic oil, sour milk and ground elder; and rump of veal cooked sous vide, with boiled garlic, Norwegian turnip and grilled baby gem salad. Elsewhere on the menu, a trio of Norwegian cheeses are each paired with a glass of wine.
How much: Three courses without wine from £47 per person, five courses, £58.

Chef Christer Økland, Restaurant 1877

Chef Christer Økland, Restaurant 1877

Five Bergen food finds

Bergen fish soup
Creamy with a sour edge, and usually made with fishballs and a julienne of vegetables.


Also known as the ‘Bergen bun’, this sugary cinnamon bun is usually served warm from the oven.

Berries from Askoy island
Norwegians say their berries are tastier than others because a lack of sun means they take longer to grow.

Bergen’s Aquavit
A traditional spirit made from potatoes and spices with a taste of oak, caraway, star anise and citrus.

Anne Madam

A zealously fishy cafe near Bergen quay, serving everything from fishballs to cod burgers, trout wraps and heart-shaped fishcakes.

How to do it

Inghams has a seven-night Taste of Norway Tour, featuring Bergen and Balestrand, from £859 per person, with return flights from the UK to Bergen, airport transfers, a Flåm railway journey, three- or four-star accommodation and some meals.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)