Fabulous Norwegian women and some history of food on the farm
Today is International Women’s Day, and for some reason this day makes me want to research about how we used to be in the old days. While Norway has always had strong women and started practicing equal rights for men and women much earlier than in many other places in the world, things were still pretty traditional not too long ago, with women tending to most household chores. This was because as a land of fishermen and coastal workers who were gone at sea for major parts of the year, women were forced to become self sufficient on the farms and took care of everything from cooking, taking care of the house, farm animals, and paying bills. As a result, today’s Norwegian women are perceived as being extremely strong, capable of taking care of themselves in every way. They are just as able to change tires on their cars as they are cooking a meal for their family. Relying on a man to do anything? Foreign to most – no offense to all the wonderful Norwegian men out there!
A few years ago I received a brilliant cookbook about women from the villages of my county, Møre og Romsdal, describing the village food culture throughout the years with plenty of interesting recipes to go with it. There is a chapter about daily life versus the weekends, detailing the way of life in the old days and what types of food which was typically made and consumed. Since I firmly believe history is the reason for much of what and who we are today, I am always interested in digging in to our background and maybe even bring back some old traditions to our every day hectic, modern world. The below is an excerpt from the book, translated to the best of my abilities. Hope you find it as interesting as I did!
Daily life was dominated by a lot of hard work and long days. Many hours were spent out in the field, because both the weather and the light had to be maximized. The weekends were reserved for resting, and only the most necessary work was done at this time.
During the week the meals were plentiful, in accordance with the huge amount of work done. The most common meals around the farms were as follows:
5-6 am: Pre-breakfast, in Norwegian called “førebit” (pre-snack or appetizer)
8-9 am: Breakfast, “åbit” “me’morgas” (A dialect word from Sunnmøre where I’m from)
12pm/noon: Dinner, or in old Norwegian “dugurd”
4-4:30pm: Nons – this Norwegian word is thought to have stemmed from the Latin word “nona”, which means the 9th hour of the day, around 3pm, a description of a meal that was consumed in the middle of the afternoon. More recently, this meal has now turned into our dinner in modern Norway.
8pm. Evening snack (kveldsmat)
Both the pre-breakfast and breakfast were meals consisting of bread with coffee. Sweet and sour milk was also added when available. In addition to whole wheat bread, a potato cake and “hyllkake” were also served. Hyllkake (glohopp, aslabb, kleppaskake) was a bread dough that was baked on top of the stove. Toppings would be syrup, gamalost (special stinky cheese), gjetost (brown goat cheeee) and sønnost, a type of white cheese.
Dinner varied according to the season and access to ingredients. It was apparent that the sea was an important source for food along with what was produced on the farm. Herring in all varieties dominated. During herring season, fresh herring was served. Otherwise, it was salt herring with potato and flatbrød (flatbread), accompanied with a soup based on water and barley meal. To add flavor, they added sour milk, and this soup was called “syrsuppe” (sour soup). Salt herring was also used for the potato dumplings so famous in Norway (ball or “komle”), and the dumplings came in different shapes. The round dumpling was stuffed with bacon, while the longer dumplings had no stuffing. With a side of potatoes, kohlrabi and bacon, the meal was both cheap and satisfying. Today, salt herring, or “spekesild” as we call it, is often served with beets, horseradish cream or some type of sour cream, and boiled potatoes. I know of no other Norwegian /Scandinavian dish that taste so authentically delicious!
As herring was widely prepared everywhere and an easy to get ingredient, it was added to other dishes, and “sildgryn” was one dish especially popular, a soup where meat was substituted for herring. Regular fish such as cod and haddock were prepared fresh or salted, with mashed potatoes.
Meat was also utilized, but much less common. Meat based soups and ‘lapskaus‘ were common as less meat was required to make these dishes. Many old people refer to meat soup as “kjøtgryn” (meat grain), as they would use barley to add volume to the soup.
When veal was slaughtered, they took the innards and meat from the head, boiled it, cleaned it and it was ground up. Barley, spices and flour was added – and this dish was called “veal porridge”. Leftovers were sauteed for dinner the following day.
While the women washed dishes, the men took an afternoon nap. After about an hour break, they had a cup of coffee with a piece of bread, a piece of loaf cake or just a sugar cube before another work session.
For the “nons” meal, porridge was often served, but it could also be bread. Oatmeal cooked with water, was a standard menu item. Sometimes they would have newly churned butter with it, when available.
The last meal took place after the barn had been tended to. Often times, porridge was the meal here as well. If there were leftovers from the porridge meal earlier in the day, this was used. Warm milk broken with sour milk, was poured over the porridge leftovers. The same procedure repeated the following morning if there were leftovers from the night before. Do we sense a pattern here? Nothing was wasted, and the women really knew how to get the most of what food they had on the farm. Sometimes I wish we had more of those talents today, where we waste way too much food….
The biggest difference between the weekdays and the weekend was that there was no work on the weekends, except cooking. The meals were not as plentiful as during the week, and sometimes an additional delicacy was added. Meat was more frequently placed on the dinner table, as well as a special baked treat along with the coffee, since it was Sunday.
No matter what day of the week it was, everybody had their special seat at the table. The man of the house sat at the “high seat” (which I assume was at the end of the table). Children and women sat furthest away. The housewife had to sit so she could easily see everyone and make sure they were fed. This made me remember the times at the formal dining table at our house when I grew up and we entertained guests. My dad, a very traditional man, would smile and signal to all the girls at the table with a nod, after we finished a course, that we could now remove the plates and switch the setting. He was raised on a farm in the late 1920s/early 1930s, so he grew up with all of the above traditions. I think he did it more as a joke, but there is no doubt that my mom had the task of taking care of the house, while he was at work (he was a dentist with his own practice). Still, my mom is one of the strongest women I know, with a personality as huge as a cruise ship….She was secure in her role and secretly ruled the household, all the while they respected each other. And of course she is a hell of a cook – which we all know, is the way to a man’s heart!! My father is no longer with us, and I miss him dearly… but I thank him for his role in supporting his girls and making us who we are today!