It was minus 15 degrees and blowing to gale when I landed in Longyearbyen one April afternoon. From the airport I took in my new surroundings, spotting the Global Seed Vault from its lofty perch in the mountains. Ice-strengthened sailboats in the harbour, coal smoke streaking a pale sky, everything in sight backlit with that Arctic light that seeps into every corner. Amazing. It wasn't long, though, before my stomach started to growl, interrupting my daydream. I had just travelled 36 hours to reach this Arctic archipelago and damn it, I was hungry for some good Norwegian food. I thought of smoked fish, cheese, and rye crackers, washed down with a good beer. Soon I was setting off for the Svalbardbutikken, which at 78 degrees North is the world’s northernmost grocery store. With eyes larger than my belly I stood at the fish counter and marvelled awhile at gravlax, smoked cod, and pickled herring. In a daze that only comes to those shopping for groceries while half-starved and unable to read a single label, I placed some smoked mackerel in my basket, a package of rye crackers, and what I believed to be a block of cheese.
During my two weeks aboard that ship my love affair with brunost only grew in strength. And like any good tryst in international waters, my favourite time to enjoy brunost was at midnight. I followed suit with my new Norwegian partners in crime: take a slice of brunost, place on knekkebrød (rye cracker), and smear liberally with jam. After one stormy night when almost everyone got seasick, I happily surmised this calorie-rich Norwegian midnight snack also staved off seasickness. Sadly, though, when we docked on the last day of April I realized my love affair with brunost was coming to an end. Unlike Knausgaard, brunost has proved un-translatable to the foreign palette. (Let's face it, "brown cheese" doesn't have a ring to it.) It is, in order words, only available inside Norway's borders. It was now my last day on the island, so out of desperation I purchased one last dense brown block of brunost at the now familiar Svalbardbutikken. This time I didn't get the mild; I got the extra-strong. The following day I left as quickly as I had arrived, but this time with the feeling I had left something behind. Before heading to the airport I had just enough time to leave my remaining extra-strong brunost with my Norwegian friend, Maren.
And so I left, cut off from brunost forever and from all the great people with whom I had worked, skied, eaten, and drank with. Longyearbyen, you and your brown cheese charmed me!
Sometimes I suspect my travel itineraries are different from the person sitting next to me on an airplane. Notice how I have four boarding passes and you only have one? This means I have made some questionable choices in life. From Svalbard and the Arctic midnight sun I flew straight to Budapest, Hungary. I had decided somewhat on a whim to visit my dear old friend Alvan as he biked through the city. Him and his friends were on a bike tour through Eastern Europe and my arrival to the city was timed serendipitously with their meandering path into town. I showed up an hour before they did at a hostel on the busy Károlyi Street. It was just enough time to get my bearings in my new surroundings. Within minutes a certain restaurant caught my eye. It was garishly decorated with animal silhouettes and inside there appeared to be some sort of eating frenzy. Sports fans, men in business attire, and half-cut tourists alike milled about with an air of abandon for food rules. Heaps of meat were piled on styrofoam plates and tall beers spilled onto thick, meat-cleaver notched wooden tables. Before long Alvan and his spandex clad bicycle posse showed up and woke me from my reverie. It was dinner time, and it seemed the group had already decided on a place to eat. It ended up being a restaurant unworthy of mention, where as a form of hazing to join the group I was “kaiserschmarrn-ed.” This simply meant I was cajoled into ordering the kaiserschmarrn for dessert, an Eastern European specialty which consists of a plate of fried dough covered in powdered sugar and jam. My new friends accepted me to their group as I complained that my blood sugar was so high I felt like I had three shots of pálinka.
Later, at the airport, I would read an entertaining New Yorker article dedicated to Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathon Gold, renowned for his eating adventures in suburban Los Angeles. Gold, I learned, followed George Orwell’s rule of thumb when choosing a place to dine: the fancier the restaurant, the more people who have dripped sweat into your food. Interesting cuisine, he believes, often comes out of poverty. And so I recalled Downtown Pig Slaughter on Károlyi Street with a smile. Given the chance, would I ever eat there again? Probably not. But I have to say, I won’t soon forget it.
Thank you, Hungary, for reminding me that good food can be had lower on the hog.
The following day I was determined to find a small vegetarian restaurant at which I had eaten on my previous visit to Finland’s capital, in June of 2016. When I arrived at the Hietalahti Food Hall I followed my nose to the stall at the very back, which is when I discovered that the stall I was looking for had closed. “It’s very hard for these vegetarian places to stay open with all the competition.” I blinked at the man at the stall next to me who had noticed me standing alone, hungry and confused. All the competition? As I left I thought about how Finland, compared to other places I have been, has really picked up the vegetarian thing and run with it. The food stall that had been the focus of this wild goose chase had served up a certain dish that left an impression: Nyhtökaura (“Pulled Oat”) tacos. In 2016 I had ordered it not knowing what it was, and I was shocked when what looked and tasted like meat was piled into my taco. Isn’t this a vegetarian place?? Later my mother filled me in. Pulled Oats, she said, were the newest meat substitute sweeping the nation. Pulled Oats are made of oats and black beans, transformed by a secret process into pulled-pork-like strands of meat-like nuggets. At their peak popularity grocery stores could not keep them on the shelves. A video on YouTube shows Finnish shoppers calmly emptying a shelf of the stuff in minutes. It’s no wonder then, that by the time I returned to Finland in 2017 the company that made Pulled Oats, Gold&Green, had been purchased by food giant Paulig. And the growing competition in the Finnish vegetarian food scene had forced my poor little vegetarian stand to shut its doors.
So that night when I went out for dinner with some friends in Helsinki and saw a Pulled Oat Pizza on the menu, I knew I had to get it. The restaurant was Putte’s Bar and Grill on Kalevan Street and the pizza was named Maaseuden Tulevaisuus (“The Future of Agriculture”). This also happens to be the name of a popular newspaper in the distinguishably agrarian country. Delicious, hearty, nutritious, affordable, meatless. If that’s the future, then I have to say: I was sold.
The next day I went to visit my mother in Porvoo (a quiet city one hour from Helsinki), but before heading to the bus station I stopped at the Stockmann grocery store for one last visit. This time, though, instead of the Finnish classics, I bought a package of Pulled Oats. I was inspired and for dinner that night I recreated the futuristic pizza I had eaten the night before. Later, at the dinner table, it was well received. My mother is a kind-of-vegetarian (“I eat mostly vegetables”) and so when Mother’s Day rolled around I continued the vegetarian theme. I made beet burgers from an old vegan recipe my friend sent to me when I was living in Australia. Served up with avocado and tomatoes and smacked in between two oats buns, it scored off the charts on the simplicity-to-deliciousness index.
Thank you, Finland, for showing me what the future of food might look like. And for ensuring me it'll taste great.
Lastly, I visited Gothenburg, Sweden, an industrial port town on the Atlantic coast, with the purpose of visiting like-minded researchers at Chalmer’s University. It was a productive and intellectually stimulating trip, although naturally it wasn’t long before my mind turned to food. In between visits to the lovely university cafeteria and communal kitchen areas (where students take turns in groups cooking a hot lunch for the whole floor), I inserted a few questions about where I should eat. I was told to get a kanelbulle (Gothenburg’s famously gigantic cinnamon roll) and to take a visit to the Feskekôrka, the “Fish Church.” Atheistic yet simultaneously religious about seafood, to me this last suggestion sounded too good to be true. I went on a Saturday, my food shopping holy day. It was my last day in the city, and I maneuvered unhurriedly from my AirB&B on the tree-lined Vasagatan and down to the waterfront. I was carrying half a kanelbulle (despite my best efforts, I could not finish it). That’s where I saw the steeple-like roof of the Fish Church. I sat at the tables out front and had the most delicious shrimp sandwich of my life, taking a moment to consider my surroundings: low rise stone buildings and pastel colours. In the harbour: ferries, cruise ships, tall shipping cranes. Along the Dutch-style canals, pedestrians enjoying the early summer sunshine.
I left Gothenburg wanting more. Thank you Gothenburg, for showing me it’s okay to be crazy about pastries and religious about seafood.
Happy, satisfied, and with a sizable dent on my Mastercard - like a good meal at a nice restaurant that’s where these food stories end. I hope if you end up in these wonderful cities you, too, are reminded that when your stomach starts growling, it’s time to explore.
Written by Erik Veitch
Edited by Michael Lee. Thanks, Mike!
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.