Fårikål: An Edible Cultural History of Norway

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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.

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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

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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.

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Olde English Malt Liquor (Review): 24 Ounces of Anglo-Saxon glory

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America doesn't have much viking related stuff to see besides runestone-based hoaxes and the odd statue of Leif Erikson. That's cool enough on their own terms, though I haven't had the chance to see any during my trips. Not that it matters. There's enough to see and do in my base camp in New York, which is chock full of beautiful museums and great art. Luckily, I'm bestowed with other fascinations as well. For example, I'm extremely interested in the sociology of drinking culture. Or really just drinking culture in general. Or maybe I just like drinking? Who knows.

I'll read a demographic report on national alcohol consumption with childlike curiosity, so I've spent hours hauling my girlfriend from liquor store to liquor store. I hardly ever bought anything, though: For the most part I was really just comparing booze selections in various parts of the city, which lead me to conclude that Americans of all social classes really love their IPAs.

It was in some sticky-floored bodega I saw it. A bronze can winking at me from the refrigerator at midnight. The label stated Olde English "800" malt liquor. The holy grail and envy of post-ironic Medievalists across the Western hemisphere. This is what Beowulf would have drunk were he a hobo in Detroit. What does the "800" stand for? I have no idea, but 800 was a year in the early viking era, which must mean I'll take any excuse to write an article. Being somewhat of a historian of human and animal alcohol abuse, as well as an expert in certain cultures long since dead, I was pretty stoked to try it out. I took out of the fridge and carried it to the counter with both hands and gave a cheery nod to the proprietor – an unenthusiastic Asian man. I paid in cash and carried it home in a brown paper bag.

What is malt liquor? Let me tell you: Malt liquor is basically potent beer, often sold dirt cheap in large containers. Why don't they just call it beer, then, you might ask. They don't, because that would be illegal in several states, that's why. Instead malt liquor is an umbrella term used for various alcoholic beverages made with malted barley, but usually contains various industrial grade non-standard ingredients to cheaply boost the alcohol level as well. Malt liquor, malt liquor, how it rolls off the tongue.

For context: The Norwegian welfare state is very concerned with the health of its citizens, which means it's prone to nanny-state lawmaking. We have a restrictive alcohol policy, and hard alcohol is only available through a government-run chain of liquor stores. It's not all bad: Two benefits to this is a monstrously huge selection and a thoroughly educated staff. It also means that everything they sell is curated by a board of specialists. This so-called Wine Monopoly does provide both higher and lower quality booze. But they don't offer gut-rot products such as what Americans call bum wine, which tastes like a chemical spill and allegedly makes your tongue turn black, so it's probably for the better. American malt liquor is rarely exported as well, and demand will never be large enough for the Norwegian Wine Monopoly to care. This combined with a general counter-cultural interest, may explain why these beverages hold an almost mythical status to me. Make no mistake, however: Produced by MillerCoors, one of Americas highest grossing brewing companies, Olde English "800" is no underdog by any means. The international beverage industry is cynical and deceptive.

Back in the apartment I sat down, wondering whether I should have a meal or a snack, but in the end I could come up with no better pairing for Olde English "800" than Anglo-Saxon Books' parallel translation of Beowulf. Luckily, a copy happened to be within arms reach. I politely tapped the can to warn the contents of my arrival, put my finger to the tab, cracked it open and had a sip. I halfway expected it to be really awful. It's certainly no taste explosion, but I can't honestly say it was in any way lesser in quality to cheap macro lagers such as Budweiser (so-called " " "king" " " of beers) or Pabst Blue Ribbon (hipster soma). In fact, I found the morning-urine-hued, Anglo-Saxon themed drink to be richer in taste than both of them despite a rather low hop profile. Then again, this is probably carried by the comparatively hearty alcohol content of at 5.9% AB. It is what it is.

 

Verdict:

Three cleft skulls.

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Best paired with poetry in a dead Germanic tongue and bitter musings on the Norman invasion.

 

[First published March 22nd 2017]

Barbarian Beverages: The Noble Savage - a simple cocktail with an archaeological twist

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While recording the latest, third, episode of the Brute Norse Podcast, me and my guest Aksel Klausen strayed into a long digression about one of our favorite subjects: Drinking culture in the past. The act of drinking is, as I've mentioned elsewhere, a deeply symbolic act. What, where, and how we drink unveils our identities, and often our taboos. Drinking correctly can earn you social prestige, but drinking inappropriately has a wider range of possible outcomes, from the carnivalesque to the abhorrent. Next time you go to a party, bring wine and drink it out of a ceramic mug, or a jar. It will raise questions.

Drinking is socially stratified: For example drinking beer was considered somewhat antithetical to drinking wine, historically. I am thinking of my own, native Norwegian society, but it could apply to many other places too. Beer was unpretentious, but also not "cultured". Today, it does not always make sense to talk about beer in broad terms: It's been accepted as the rich culinary expression it is.

With this came an admittance that beer is also culture - obviously, there was never a point where it wasn't. Even the archetype of the village drunk is a saturated cultural expression. What we're really talking about, is shifting perceptions of what constitutes high and low culture.

Anyway, the dichotomy of beer against wine has ancient roots: Wine drinking cultures, such as ancient Rome and Greece, have tended to perceive beer drinking as barbarian, or at the very least vulgar. Bavarians obviously see no stigma in the consumption of beer, while prohibition era Iceland eventually made exceptions for wine and hard liquor (you might say that Nordic drinking culture was spiritual, wink wink), but they made no exception for beer which , unbelievable as it may sound, was illegal until 1989. It was branded a gateway drug, which can be compared to legalizing cocaine, but not cannabis. A poignant metaphor given Rekjavík's past (?) reputation as a safe harbor for yuppies, who were all drinking prosecco anyway.

Beer drinking cultures have tended to be less judgmental, though there are certainly examples where proponents of beer culture have accused wine of promoting decadence and snobbery, both today and in the ancient past. In Norse and Germanic society, there seems to have been a social hierarchy of beverages: Beer is good, and mead is excellent, but wine is the stuff of legend. Heroic poems like Atlakvi­ða passionately refer to the glory of the feasting hall, where champions take deep sips from "wine-heavy ale bowls". Talk about hedonism. 

 

at juellinge in denmark, this roman era woman was laid to rest with roman drinking vessels and a strange concoction.

at juellinge in denmark, this roman era woman was laid to rest with roman drinking vessels and a strange concoction.

Under the Roman Influence

A proverbial dip into some of the archaeological evidence for Bronze and Iron Age Nordic beverages, primarily in the form of residue on the inside of drinking vessels and containers, suggest that these Nordic cultures were far from purists when it came to what they drank. The residue bears witness to the spectral presence of berries, malt from beer, and pollen and wax from honey mead. There are also occasional traces of wine, and pitch that could either be used to flavor the beverages, but probably as a sealant for the vessels. Wine, of course, being telltale of contact with the mediterranean.

While it is impossible to tell whether or not all of this was contained in the vessels at once, there are enough of these examples to suggest that people living in prehistoric, Bronze Age, and Iron and Dark Age Northern Europe, consumed mixed beverages, often referred to as Nordic grog by the venerable professor Patrick McGovern, who refers to them in such classics as Ancient Wine, Uncorking the Past, and lastly, Ancient Brews - the most recent addition to his bibliography.

I've not read that last one, but you should definitely read the former if you're interested in history, fermented beverages, the history of fermented beverages, or the fermented beverages of history. Let me rephrase that: If you are culturally conscious person person who eats and drinks, then you should read at least one of these books, or die. If you are a scholar, you should buy Uncorking the Past, sit down with a typewriter, and retype every word of it. You will have grown as an educator by the end of it.

There are a lot of opinions about what constitutes a so-called serious academic. I believe it is one who takes his or her material so seriously, that they cannot help but reach out to the public. Who are unafraid of breaking the mold. McGovern is just that, as his impassioned, amiable writing style demonstrates. His books achieve to be both pioneering academic text books, and page turners.

Anyway, my friend and I were chatting. We were already somewhat tipsy on his homemade Roman inspired mulled wine. An earthy, spicy beverage he had fashioned from amphora-fermented Sicilian nectar. As it ran out we decided to return to our barbarian roots and recreate a drink we'd enjoyed many times before, usually by an open fire under the blushing sky of long Norwegian summer nights. This simple, contemporary interpretation of Nordic grog requires only two ingredients: Red wine and lager beer. 

Our choice of ingredients was unpretentious, in true barbarian fashion. The wine came from a Shetland duty free, apparently branded by the store itself. If I recall, I found it somewhat dry and earthy, yet not too heavy on the tannins. Online reviews absolutely slaughter it. We topped it off with Faxe Premium. This Danish pilsner was a no brainer given the horned viking adorning the can.

The result was, according to the words of my companion, the best of both worlds: A drink that achieves to be both diluted wine, and fortified beer, satisfying Roman, as well as barbarian thirsts in equal measure! Like a patrician in the gutter in the final days of Rome. Mind you, the wine provides a better complement to the beer than the beer does to the wine, leaving a wine-heavy product laced with the light head and tapered fizz of the danish pilsner. While both ingredients matter as they need to balance each other, don't go overboard with the choice of wine. Save your wallet. Even then it feels significantly fancier to drink than the beer would have felt on its own, as it proved to be quite silky and easy on the tongue. 

Recipe: The noble Savage

1 parts dry, young red wine

1 parts pilsner or similar lager beer

Preparation:

1. Chill the ingredients slightly

2. Pour stoically into a glass drinking bowl,

(Alternately: a highball glass)

3. Mix carefully, don't spill a drop!

4. Sip medio-slowly

Suggested pairings:

Cured ham, gift exchange and blood oaths.

If you would like to hear Aksel's favorite recipe for Roman spiced wine, pledge your support over at the Brute Norse Patreon page.

Seaweed: An Authentic Viking Age Beer Snack

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Few things are as telling about a culture as what, how, and where we eat. The seemingly mundane rituals of our daily meals, whether we skip breakfast, eat out, or prepare decadent dinners in our own homes, each meal is a piece in a cultural puzzle that reveals aspects we might not communicate or consider much in our daily lives.

Food fascinates me, and it's only natural that this fascination extends to my love of the past. For all intents and purposes, the fates wanted it so that culinary history became one of my prime research interests, and particularly the cultural history of drinking. The act of drinking goes far beyond the menial task of consuming liquids. At its best, drinking is the celebration of life and happiness. At worst, it's damnation. This dualism is worthy of investigation!

Whether it is tea or tequila, performative drinking offers a framework for social, political and religious rituals. In the case of alcoholic beverages, it contains an alibi for bonding, even courtship (and seduction), under the assumption that intoxication will undress our true motives and reveal who we really are.

Drinks and delicacies

Drinking fits well in the company of light meals. Bitter coffee or wine is frequently accompanied by chocolate, beer is suitedable for savory snacks, like nuts or chips. This was a truism even in Norse culture, where drinks were accompanied by krásir, a term best translated as "delicacies". It's not entirely clear what these delicacies consisted of, though the 13th century Trójumanna saga names the extravagant luxury of pairing wine with "peppered deliacies" of hens and peacocks.

There's no need to go overboard, though. I've found that beer and red dulse seaweed (Palmaria palmata), or sǫl in Old Norse, make for an excellent duo. Incidently, the combination of dulse and drink (though non-alcoholic in this specific case) saved the life of the infamous 10th century viking and poet Egill Skallagrímsson.

Egill thirsts for life

Throughout his days Egill was haunted by traumatic events and near-death experiences. When his much beloved son Bodvar died driving a load of timber that Egill had purchased, it finally drove him off the bend. He fell into psychosis and holed up in his bedchamber in an attempt to starve himself. However, his daughter Þorgerðr devised a cunning plan: She convinced him she was suicidal too, and sat down by his side, chewing salty dulse seaweed, which she claimed speed up the process. This puzzled her father, who asked for a taste. In fact, it did anything but kill him: Þorgerðr eventually called for a drink of water, which proved too tempting for Egill to resist (the saga paints a picture of a very thirsty man), though he was angry to find he'd been tricked into drinking nutritious milk. Once that was done, the girl compelled him to compose a funerary poem to honor their loss, an elegy, insisting they could well die later if they wished. Yet when the poem was finished, Egill no longer felt like dying. His thirst evoked his poetic passion, and his his passion for skaldic poetry whetted his appetite for life.

 

Palmaria palmata in the wild. Photo: Secretlondon/Wikimedia Commons.

Palmaria palmata in the wild. Photo: Secretlondon/Wikimedia Commons.

The new and archaic Nordic kitchens

Despite its millennia old roots in the Nordic diet, dulse sank into obscurity in modern times. For long, the only means of acquiring it was by going to shore at low tide and foraging it yourself. This can be a quite charming activity if you live in a relatively unpolluted coastal area. Seaweed has since resurfaced in the commercial niche of the new Nordic kitchen, and today it is globally available through select online vendors and Nordic specialist markets. 

If for whatever reason dulse is not available where you live, there are many other options. Japanese and asian markets usually offer some variety of kombu or nori marketed for this exact purpose, and high end American supermarkets like Whole Foods may stock a small variety of kelp and seaweeds as well. Ultimately, there is no feeling that can replace the joy of a free, self-harvested batch dried on your kitchen counter. But whether you are foraging for yourself, or opting for a store bought variety, mind your teeth! You'll be wise to search them for small rocks or grains of sand that may be embedded in the surface (this is not a problem with processed nori). Most edible seaweeds make great snacks if you can stomach the ocean-y taste, and sure as hell makes for a healthier snack alternative than most!

 

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