Fårikål: An Edible Cultural History of Norway

WWKG8597.JPG

Fårikål, or “sheep in cabbage”, is popularly regarded as Norway’s national dish. Whether or not this most arid half of the Scandinavian peninsula actually requires a national dish is up for debate, but I will not spill blood to contest the claim.

To the untrained and unappreciative eye, fårikål may seem just like any other desaturated slop that emerges from kitchens across the North, which in spite of due popularity in the gourmet restaurant market, isn’t particularly famous for its traditional home cooking. A problem of marketing, certainly, but ask anyone who was ever brace enough to try. They will testify that Scandinavian comfort foods are as hearty as they are delicious. Who needs color anyway.

Fårikål’s main constituents, lamb and cabbage, are both products of the autumn season. So naturally, autumn’s return marks the season of fårikål. Unpretentious, simple, and emblematic of the landscape and its people. It demonstrates a rustic refinement unseen in most modern kitchens. Simply put: It’s great folk culture.

Every bowl of fårikål is in its own little way a cultural history of Norway. The country has over a million sheep, that’s one for every sixth person, and more than an equal number of lambs are slaughtered every year. For comparison our country has less than a hundred thousand pigs, which are historically challenging to raise. Sheep are more than suitable for our steep, saline shrublands, and even help fight overgrowth, doing their part in maintaining a cultural landscape slowly carved out by millennia of agriculture. As our staple livestock since the Neolithic, sheep are quite literally as old as the hills.

Sau, the Norwegian word for sheep comes from the Old Norse sauðr, and is etymologically tied to the verb sjóða, meaning “to boil, simmer”. Initially, sauðr may have meant something along the lines of “the animal we cook”. If that doesn’t speak volumes about how important these woolly critters have been to our survival, I don’t know what does. Sheep have filled the bellies and dressed the bodies of uncounted generations. Hold a leg of lamb alongside a map of Norway and you will realize that the two even look alike.

Kål (Old Norse kál), is an umbrella term reflecting both English kale, cabbage, and various other cultivars of Brassica oleracea. If not as ancient as domestic sheep, it is still an old Nordic staple crop attested in Old Norse texts. It is mentioned alongside angelica (hvǫnn) and onion or leek (laukr) in the Bjarkeyjarréttr. This is a 13th century law regulating centers of commerce, so it must have been important. But it wasn’t exactly a luxury item, as some interesting Old Norse proverbs attest to: At drepa fleski í kál - "to put bacon in the cabbage” means to turn a sorry situation into something nicer (Egils saga einhenda ch. 8). We obviously can’t live on cabbage alone, not today, and not in Norse times either.

29243686_10160472457300122_5296255332408885248_n.jpg

As in later peasant culture, the most common way to prepare fresh meat was by boiling stews and broths (Old Norse soð, a more general term than later Norwegian “sodd”), and to most people it was an occasional and greatly appreciated delicacy. While no *fær í kál is mentioned in any Old Norse texts, broth of lamb is. With the seasonal overlap of slaughter and harvest, it is certainly likely that a bowl of mutton and cabbage provided warmth and comfort to a cold and tired Norseman on more than a few occasions.

The only additional and more recent ingredients, by some considered essential, are whole black peppercorns (for a nice little sting), and a side of boiled potatoes. Pepper, by the way, is probably the most popular spice of the Norwegian larder, while the potato remains an essential vegetable that has saved our starving asses through many bitter seasons.

With its ancient roots and modest selection of ingredients, fårikål is a due reminder of Norway’s humble rural past. I hold that within the Scandifuturist philosophy every bowl is to be regarded at least equal in symbolic value to Tolstoy’s shirt and Heidegger’s lederhosen. Of course, this article would not have been complete without a recipe, which you will find below. Newcomers will find it surprisingly fragrant, and the smell only grows as the dish simmers, and is prone to linger for quite some time after. It should simmer for no less than three hours. If you have a slow cooker, that’s ideal, but it will still fill your house with its distinct bouquet. Loved by many, loathed by some. It can be cheaply and easily be scaled up and down, so why not invite some friends and make it a banquet? This is a two-stage experience meant to be drawn out over at least two days, so plan enough for leftovers. “Second-day fårikål” is widely regarded as the best.

Fårikål

fårikål.png

Essentials:
- 1.5 kg cabbage
- 1.5 kg lamb, diced in large chunks (shoulder or leg, with bones)
salt to taste

Pot with lid.

Optionals:
1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
as many potatoes as you expect to eat
2 tbsp of wheat flour (I usually skip this)

Directions:

1. Cut the cabbage into large pieces. Many choose to discard the core.
2. Brown the lamb pieces in butter on all sides, bone and all.
3. Starting with lamb, stack meat and cabbage in layers in the pot (add peppercorns as you go along).
4. Fill with water, but not too much: Cabbage itself contains a lot of liquid and will sink down as it simmers.

Heat it slowly, cover and let simmer on low-to-medium heat for three hours, or as long as you can stand waiting. Remember: The longer the better! Pairs well with white wine, lager beer, or a nice rustic cider. Preferably around a sturdy hardwood table with family or good friends. And always keep good salt and freshly crushed pepper close at hand.

Support Brute Norse on Patreon.

The Word Cat Didn't Always Mean Cat

Louis_Wain_The_bachelor_party.jpg
What sort of philosophers are we who know absolutely nothing about the origin and destiny of cats?
— Henry David Thoreau

When we use the word cat, we tend to think that the word cat is synonymous with felines such as house cats, lions, and tigers. But it wasn't always so. Nobody knows for sure where word cat comes from, but one thing is certain: The word cat does not actually mean cat. This is evident from various compound words in which cat occurs in the Germanic languages. Modern English may tend to be more discriminate about the term, and truly most of us think of the pet variety when we use it in common speech. But there are some revealing exceptions: Pussycat, meerkat, and polecat are all distinctly different animals. Quite a few examples surivive in the Scandinavian languages, and their origins harken back to the Old Norse tongue. The Norwegian røyskatt (stoat), from Old Norse hreysikǫttr (literally "cairn cat") is one example, another is apekatt, which means monkey (literally "ape cat"). Swedish retains the ancient Nordic word for hedgehog, igelkott.

So what is the rationale behind all these unrelated critters being called cats? The only logical explanation is that cat means "small mammal", and furry animals in particular.

Stoat (mustela erminea). Creative Commons

Stoat (mustela erminea). Creative Commons

The European wildcat died out in Scandinavia at some point during Nordic Bronze Age (between 1800 and 500 BCE). But domestic cats were present as far North as Poland by the Pre-Roman Iron Age (500 BCE until the start of the Common Era). They reached Scandinavia not long after. It's presumed that the word cat, in its then Proto-Germanic form *kattuz tagged along with the domestic cat from the Roman, Latin speaking south where it was called cattus/catta. The problem is that the select few Latin sources we have for this word are all from the 5th and 6th centuries CE, hundreds of years after cats made it to Scandinavia.

Judging by its form, the word must have come to the Nordic before the i-umlaut raged through the language, which changed the vowel i place names like Kettinge in Denmark. Likewise, it's not entirely clear whether the Latin sources exclusively refer to the house pet that meows and catches rodents, or if they also applied it to other small animals. At any rate, the similarity between the Latin and Proto-Germanic forms cattus and *kattuz is great enough to assume it is a loanword, despite the late attestation.

Carved panel depicting feline creatures on the 9th century Oseberg Wagon. Photo: KHM, UiO

Carved panel depicting feline creatures on the 9th century Oseberg Wagon. Photo: KHM, UiO

Many things indicate that the word had been on a long journey before it arrived in Scadinavia. Nubian 'kadis' and Berber 'kadiska', words both meaning cat, hint to a possible Afro-Asiatic origin. This makes sense, because the cat was most likely first domesticated in Africa or the Middle East, and was originally unfamiliar to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Perhaps the Romans also changed the name of the animal from felis to cattus/catta when they were introduced to the domestic cat. 

When the cat came to Scandinavia we had other words for felines as well. In Norwegian these survive as lo and gaupe - the lynx. We will never know why didn't they use these words to describe the new, tame, miniature version, but it's doubtful that many purists will lose much sleep over it. The new animal brought economical and hygienic benefits, for example to farmers suffering from mice-infested granaries.

But what about all the other Scandinavian animals that have -katt as a suffix? Norwegian røyskatt, Swedish lekatt, and Danish lækattall denote the same animal; the stoat. Then there is the aforementioned igulkǫttr, which lives on as the Swedish word for hedgehog - igelkott. Ígull is an old Germanic name for the hedgehog, and le-/læ- may be an ancient word for stoat, while Norwegian røys-, meaning cairn, points to where the animal prefers to live. Some have also speculated that Freyja's cats in reality may have been stoats or weasels. European monkeys are comparably small, and as we know from before, monkeys are called "ape-cats" in Norwegian. Today we distinguish between apes, which are big, and monkeys which are small. What all of these animals have in common is the fact that they are small in size, and that they are mammals. Accordingly, we must assume that cat originally meant "a small mammal". Perhaps the reason why only the purring newcomer got the honor of being named cat without a prefix or suffix, is because they didn't know it by any previous name.

Image courtesy Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Image courtesy Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

This article was originally contributed by Krister SK Vasshus, who is currently a PhD student at the University of Bergen, Norway. It was originally published on Tulen - Brute Norse's Norwegian language predecessor. Translated and re-adapted for Brute Norse by Eirik Storesund.

Further reading:

  • Wahlberg, Mats. (2012) Kattens betydelse för våra ortnamn. I: Leibring, Katharina et al. red. Namn på stort och smått. Uppsala, Institutet för språk och folkminnen, Namnarkivet i Uppsala, s. 301-315.

Wild men and bearded women of the medieval North

wildman.png

 

Struggling to keep up with the ethnographic trends of the time, medieval Norsemen were also familiar with such creatures. Icelandic and Norwegian scholars demonstrated their access to continental thought by writing books such as Konungs skuggsjá, or "The King's Mirror" if you prefer it by its English title. Which is a 13th century Norwegian handbook in courtly customs (smile a lot, don't pull a knife on the king), street-smartness (don't get drunk, don't be a horndog, rise early), and natural wonders (there's a hot spring in Iceland that tastes like beer). Needless to say it is one of my favorite works of medieval literature.

 

Among those aforementioned wonders, we find a number of curiosities and facts both true and false from all around the North Atlantic. In a chapter dedicated to the peculiarities of Ireland, the author relates an anecdote from the apprehension of a wild man:

It once happened in that country (and this seems indeed strange) that a living creature was caught in the forest as to which no one could say definitely whether it was a man or some other animal; for no one could get a word from it or be sure that it understood human speech. It had the human shape, however, in every detail, both as to hands and face and feet; but the entire body was covered with hair as the beasts are, and down the back it had a long coarse mane like that of a horse, which fell to both sides and trailed along the ground when the creature stooped in walking. (1917: 110)

One should say that woolly halfwits hardly make the weirdest entry in a book that eagerly encourages its readers to rub whale sperm in their eyes, but don't mind me: Such wild men occur in various cultures across Europe under various names, such as the Old High German schrato and English "woodwose", which likely originated from Old English *wudu-wāsa, or "wood-being". This might recall the Old Norse vættir "nature spirits, trolls", as both share a common Proto-Germanic etymology: *wihtiz meaning "thing, object, essence, creature". Perhaps a euphemism, a taboo name used to avoid naming the creatures directly, as was originally the case with the huldufólk ("hidden people") and hittfolk ("those people") of Nordic folklore.

 

Stained glass wild man. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Private photo.

Stained glass wild man. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Private photo.

Here as always, the world of monsters mirrors the world of men. While the author of Konungs skuggsjá did not doubt that wild men lived in the outskirts of other realms, I can't help but wonder whether he thought it possible that such a creature could be found in his own native Norway. The German medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen offers answers. Adam, whose main claim to fame is his descriptions of the pagan temple at Uppsala in Sweden, also penned some fetching descriptions of the rest of the Nordic area in his Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg. There he gave the following and rather unflattering account of the Northern Norwegian population in the 1070's:

I have heard, in the rugged mountains that exist up there, that there are women with beards, while the men live in the forests and rarely show themselves. They use the skins of wild beasts for clothing and when they speak, it supposedly resembles snarling rather than speech, so that they are hardly intelligible even to their closest neighbors. (1968: 282 [My own translation])

Interestingly, he goes on to describe the Sami next, or Stride-Finns as he calls them, who are easily the prime victims of literary dehumanization in the Nordic middle ages. Specifically he notes their inability to exist without snow - on which they rely to get around, and which also allows them to traverse the landscape "faster than the wild beasts" (read: skiing). Adam also refers to Scandinavian speech as snarling elsewhere. This could imply that he thought these bearded women belonged to Germanic Scandinavian stock, or at the very least were of some other ethnicity than the Sami, which is interesting insofar that Norse literature often refers to trolls and Sami as if they were entirely interchangeable.

Wild man on a church panel in Sogn Folk Museum, Norway. Private photo.

Wild man on a church panel in Sogn Folk Museum, Norway. Private photo.

Pardoning their overall gullibility and hyper-violent tendencies, Adam claims Norwegians make model Christians. None the less he describes a general problem of rampant witchcraft and heathendom across Scandinavia. No wonder: Adam refers to Norway as "the remotest country on Earth" (1968: 279). He considers Scandinavians half-civilized at best, and utter barbarians at worst. They are contested only by the barely human hybrids living further North and East of the Baltic Sea, or "Barbarian Sea" as Adam likes to call it. In line with his extravagant use of the word "barbarian", which he fits wherever he can.

Finland, he asserts, is populated exclusively by amazons who mate either with passing merchants or wild beasts, and isn't too shy to provide a theory of his own either: First of all it's extremely unlikely that any sailor would have sex with strange, allegedly gorgeous women. Besides, any male specimen of the amazonian race is born with the head of a beast, while the women are all bombshells. Whether or not you accept Adam's reasoning he makes a distinction between amazons, who sire offspring through bestiality, and the hound-faced people of Russia whom he implicitly equates to the Huns, based on the rock solid science of folk-etymology (Hun and hound sound similar, ergo there must be a connection).

Wild men are to a point what most people are not. They are uncanny, and their ambiguity is often underlined in the fact that some authors cannot decide whether or not they qualify as human. Which is to ask what a human is. Surely with no lack of poetic doubt and self-questioning, an existential level to the wild men which seems strengthened by the fact that the stories about them are shrouded in hearsay, as if the possibility of their existence is compelling, yet dreaded for its implications. They are recognized partly as kin, partly as a natural counterpart to man. Something that links him to savage and untamed nature on one side, and that which is unspoiled, raw and potent on the other. In case you couldn't tell, Adam was taking any argument he could to further his claim that Scandinavia needed some more of that Christian religion. Make of that what you will, but if you come to Norway looking for our bearded women I'm afraid you'll be severely disappointed.

Sources

  • Adam Bremensis. 1968. De hamburgske ærkebispers historie og nordens beskrivelse. Translated by Carsten L. Henrichsen. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen.
  • Larson, Laurence Marcellus (tr.). 1917. The King’s Mirror[Speculum regale - Konungs skuggsjá]. Scandinavian Monographs 3. The American-Scandinavian Foundation: New York.