Arctic Norway and Jutland

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Fustvatn Lake, Nordland, Norway. We came to America from our home on this lake in 1901. 

Moving swiftly toward Christmas now. Northern California rainy season, which should last off and on until at least March, perhaps beyond. This afternoon tiny particles of rain which I wouldn’t exactly call drops, but which are present in great abundance, drift and dance through the air, flying in every direction like so many bits of agitated pollen–the winds can’t seem to decide which direction they ought to go. My main job this wet weekend: to be somewhat productive with my various projects while keeping the dogs on schedule, unfrenetic, and dry. So far so good.

Christmas will be just our very small family circle. The menu is vegetarian Nordic: braised red cabbage with apples, currant jelly and tofu sausage; scalloped potatoes; salad of shaved brussels sprouts with lemon vinaigrette and toasted hazelnuts; Jutlandic apple cake with powdered sugar and whipped cream. In my youth we would have eaten most of these items, but there would also have been: dinner plate sized Norwegian pancakes, paper thin, covered with melted butter and crunchy sugar, rolled and cut into sections (breakfast); roast turkey with lingonberries; caramelized new potatoes; mulled red wine; rice pudding with almonds and cherry sauce; various festive biscuits, including very peppery gingerbread.

Pepper was not only a food but a great remedy for Scandinavian immigrants to America at the end of the 19th century. I still use it, in fact, whenever I feel a cold coming on. Here’s the recipe for a family tonic from our native Helgeland region of Norway, which lies just at the Arctic Circle: put a cup or two of milk in a small saucepan, grind fresh black pepper into the milk, then bring almost to a boil, stirring constantly as the milk gets hot. Just before serving, add a bit of sugar or honey to the milk and some brandy too, if you’ve got it. Take a steaming cupful to bed with you and be glad you’re not on a fishing boat in a storm off the coast of Lofoten, where my grandmother’s uncles went for fun in off seasons of the year. I can hardly imagine doing such a thing.

My grandmother’s grandmother’s family was Danish, though they ended up in northern Norway, a whole story in itself. Thus the Jutlandic salad above. And just yesterday I started working, after a hiatus of a couple of years, on translating an early 20th century collection of tales by Johannes Jensen, ‘Himmerland Stories’, all of which take place in the remote part of Jutland where the author spent his youth. It’s really great fun, and the bleak scenery and even bleaker weather of the book exactly suit the somewhat dour mood which almost always overtakes me at this somber season of the year.

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