Extreme dining on a Norwegian glacier, published in Classic Travel magazine
Published in Classic Travel magazine
You could ask yourself 'what's the point?' but then what's the point of almost anything to do with mountains or gourmet food. The old Everest answer remains true: you do it because it's there, you eat it because it's rare.
So that's why twelve journalists and a couple of photographers came to be sitting on the top of a Norwegian glacier one sunny day in June, eating tian of crab with capelin roe, demi-smoked salmon with tzatziki, beurre blanc and pomme puree followed by raspberry creme brulee, washed down with champagne, Salento chardonnay and Pineau des Charentes.
We were the privileged guests of Paul & K, also known as Paul Rhodes and Kjartan Kjetland, gourmet chefs boasting Michelin stars and stints at some of the world's fanciest diners (Chez Nico in Park Lane, Raffles Hotel in Singapore...). And why had they invited us? Because they want the world to wake up to extreme dining, where individuals or groups can hire them to cook up a storm in the middle of nowhere, or indeed the middle of somewhere.
It was a scene from a French surrealist movie: the two of them dressed in their full chefs' getup, tall hats and all. They had constructed a dining area in the snow, complete with a white table-clothed central table. Below us lay a giant fjord, glinting in the sunlight. We were all kitted out in ski gear, having spent the previous couple of hours zipping down the Folgefonn glacier and being towed back up by a caterpillar snow truck, and now we were getting gently sozzled and sizzled in the dazzling light of a Norwegian afternoon. We couldn't believe our luck!
It did seem quite a long way to come for a bit of grub, but that's the idea. Paul & K offer to russle up their five star menus on a Serengeti hilltop, a hot air balloon or a Caribbean beach. Just say the word and the foie gras will be put on ice and the venison steaks will slip into the travel bag.
Even for those who have visited Norway, this was pretty far off the beaten track. We flew into Haugesund, a pretty fishing town on the west coast, with colourful wooden houses and a scattering of cosy, attractive bars and restaurants. Among them is Paul & K's Sixth Floor, a restaurant in the centre of town with a high, wooden-beamed ceiling and an air of class, to accompany the culinary delights. It's a converted sea loft with great views over the harbour.
Returning from the glacier, we were served soup of Jerusalem artichoke with fried mushrooms and truffle oil, grilled scallops with a fennel puree with saffron and a soy beurre noisette, crispy pollock with tagliatelle of courgettes and a grapefruit mustard sauce, breast of roast duck salsafis, French beans and Arabica sauce, finishing up with almond crumble with mascarpone and strawberries, ginger ice cream and fried strawberry with balsamic vinegar syrup. Quite a mouthful.
One of the bonuses of the experience is being able to quiz the chefs on their recipes and get some inside information on how they work. Who exactly thought of putting grapefruit mustard on a fish dish? What kind of strawberries are best for frying? It was a bewitching cascade of flavours and textures. Yet both Paul & K have a refreshingly straightforward attitude to fine dining. There's no great mystery, you just chose fresh, flavoursome ingredients and pay an extraordinary amount of attention to detail: "Every carrot, every baby onion has to be exactly the right colour," says Paul of his time as executive head chef of the Nico chain, where he won his Michelin stars.
All the more tricky on the top of a mountain, of course. It was a marvellous experience, being waited on as we sat on rugs on the snow, glasses of champagne and different wines spread around us and constantly being refilled. It made us giggle, the outlandishness of it, the hedonism and beauty, the superabundance of rich, exquisite foods, the heady thrill of being so high up in the world, gazing at an ice-carved landscape where the summer sun never sets.
Serious skiers should be warned that the Folgefonn glacier has little to challenge them. Basically it is a one piste resort, that piste being an easy blue. So although you can work up a bit of speed, even a beginner could get down it in five minutes. Nevertheless, skiing in June is always a pleasure. And skiing on any tougher slope after seven or eight glasses of wine is never to be recommended. Plus it's always nice to swim in the sea and ski in the mountains on the same day.
In between Haugesund and the glacier and back, we had been given a thorough guide to the pleasures of the Norwegian countryside. There was a pause by the seashore where we waited for a ferry crossing, giving time for a dip in the sea (not at all cold, so maybe the warm Gulfsteam current which washes over the Scottish west coast makes it up here?). Another journalist and I swam over to a small island and sunbathed for half an hour.
There were tiny hamlets where we saw how life had carried on for centuries; there was a giant waterfall spilling directly out of a cliffside; and on the second day of the trip we visited a Viking farm, complete with an English bloke dressed up as a Viking who gave a very lively presentation of how the old Norsemen used to live and behave. "Strictly speaking," he told us, "they should be called Vikers, because 'viking' is a verb which means to plunder. They would go out viking - stealing stuff from other villages."
We sat in a large barn shaped like an up-turned longboat - which is, he reckoned, how these barns were originally built - snuggled up on animal hides, looking at the central fire, the only form of light and heat in the building. It was quite dreamy. You did get a feeling of time travel, with all modern materials and conveniences melting away as the shadows played on the dark wooden walls.
We were served a Viking meal: shank of wild lamb, root vegetables, mashed potatoes and rosemary jus. Not sure whether the Vikings would have got around to the rosemary jus, but you never know. Maybe some of them grew tired of all the rape and pillage and settled for more aesthetic pursuits, calling their place Chez Sven.
The meal came on a flat block of wood, which meant the jus tended to dribble on to the table, but then Vikings aren't renowned for their fastidious table manners. For dessert came a heap of fresh berries on a 'pain perdu brioche' and vanilla ice cream. This too leaked onto the table.
Most realistic was the honey wine, like the old English mead, which we knocked back alongside the Chateau de Segries 1999 thoughtfully provided by Paul & K.
A final visit was to the town of Skudesneshavn, another coastal town with narrow cobbled streets and cute wooden houses. Once again we swam in the sea, me and a woman journalist who stripped to her bra and knickers before diving into the choppy harbour waters. We pushed across to the opposite harbour wall like seals.
Being in and on the water is a good reason to visit this part of Norway. While there were many points of interest along the route to Folgefonn, it was a terrifically long journey (four hours each way), whereas you can make it in little more than an hour by catamaran, sailing straight up the fjord to a drop off point close to the foot of the glacier. This, we agreed, would be our preference on another trip.
Since we were the lucky recipients of food of the highest quality at all times, it's hard to know whether regular visitors to Haugesund or the surrounding countryside get quite the same delights, but we certainly felt that the local ingredients and dishes were outstanding. On the first night we had a traditional lamb stew called Farikal, served in cabbage with black peppercorns and boiled potatoes, which was a treat. The fish we had, including poached cod and pollock, was consistently excellent.
Then for dessert we had Queen Maud pudding, unique to Haugesund, which is a bavaroise confection of cream and egg mix laid in layers with grated chocolate in between. In the land of Ibsen, there is nevertheless a taste for luxurious food. (Queen Maud, by the way, was English: she was Queen Victoria's granddaughter and married her first cousin Prince Charles of Denmark, who became King Hakkon II of Norway in 1905 when the country became independent. She was a weak and sickly woman, so maybe this cake cheered her up).
Altogether, this was a very special and memorable trip which I'd recommend to anyone looking for a quirky long weekend in a place which your friends will never have heard of, which is untouched by mass tourism, which gives you clean air, striking views, pleasant, welcoming people, and - if you manage to get hold of Paul & K - some of the best gourmet dining you'll ever experience.