This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
An expectant hush falls as two knife-wielding chefs in pristine whites emerge from behind the polished walnut counter at Sabi Omakase, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Stavanger. Ziggy, the sommelier, tops up our glasses. The show is about to begin.
“‘Omakase’ means ‘chef’s choice’,” he says, smiling warmly. “Everything is prepared fresh before your eyes, and you should eat each course immediately when served.”
The curtain rises on a zingy, king crab-bejewelled finger lime soup that we’re urged to slurp. Then, dish after dish appears on the counter, the tiny restaurant’s sole dining table, seating just nine. Silky halibut nigiri topped with caramelised onions, salmon belly nigiri with a powerful punch of wild garlic, umami-packed bluefish tuna with marinated seaweed, sweet raw shrimp, flat oysters with salmon caviar, a perfect langoustine with physalis and miso. The chefs work swiftly and precisely, with reverence for each ingredient as they fillet, slice, chop, garnish, glaze and blowtorch.
Roger Joya appears from behind the scenes to ask if we’re enjoying the food. “This is Tokyo-style Edomae sushi reimagined with regional ingredients. The North Sea’s cold waters are the dream — full of incredible fish and seafood. We stay true to Japanese traditions, using sweet, sticky Akitakomachi short-grain rice as the base for our nigiri, but we add our own twist — river-grown Nordic wasabi, Norwegian Wagyu, reindeer. I call this ‘Normae’ style’,” he grins at his conflation of Norwegian and Edomae.
When Roger isn’t running the kitchen, he’s out working with divers, fishermen and fishmongers to ensure everything that arrives on his counter is of flawless quality. I stumble out into the night, walking off one the most memorable meals of my life as lights twinkle over the misty blues of Stavanger harbour. Norway’s fourth largest city made its fortune from the briny blue, here in the country’s south where the turquoise Lysefjord meets the North Sea. In Stavanger’s newly revamped cannery museum, I learn how sardines kept the economy here going between the 1870s to the 1950s — before North Sea oil landed the country the big bucks. Today, Stavanger has an appealing mix of tradition and edge, home to more historic timber houses in pretty pastels than anywhere else in Norway, and one of the most dynamic street art scenes in Europe, too.
If Stavanger has hovered under the radar compared to its westerly cousin, Bergen, things are changing. The city is quietly asserting itself as a Norwegian culinary hotspot, with chefs drawing on the bounty of the fjords, fields, mountains and forests. At the pinnacle is two-Michelin-starred RE-NAA, where Sven Erik Renaa brings a foraged, seasonal touch to dishes such as sea urchin with shrimp and green strawberries.
An Antony Gormley sculpture gazes out to sea in front of Fisketorget, a waterfront fishmonger and bistro that dishes up whatever the fishing boats have landed that morning. The counter brims with glossy prawns, whole fish, scallops, oysters, lobster and crab and there’s a happy clamour in the dining room over lunch. The creamy fiskesuppe is a real burst of the sea, full of shrimp and flaky chunks of cod, dressed with parsley oil and sprinkled with chives. An open shrimp sandwich with pickled red onion and aioli is magnificent.
Stavanger is the springboard for Norway’s southern fjords, and the Norwegian Scenic Route Ryfylke offers an uplifting drive across fjord-hopping bridges, past crashing falls and flint-blue lakes. My first stop is Ryfylke Gardsysteri dairy farm in Årdal, where forested hills bow to the sea and 23 doe-eyed Norwegian Red and Jersey cows graze.
The farm is the lockdown baby of Hilde and Joar Hauge. Joar trained as a chef, but gave it up because of the unsociable hours to become a farmer — and now works all the hours under the sun, he tells me, with an ironic smile.
“Our barn is next to our small cheese factory, so it’s straight from udder to vat,” explains Joar, as we walk into a room stacked with pungent wheels of cheese. “We make our unpasturised cheese twice a week, the traditional way.”
It’s wondrous. There’s gooey, intensely aromatic ryfylkeosten, a cream cheese as fine as anything in France, semi-ripe pøyg, aged three to six months, nutty, manchego-like trave, and farr, a crumbly, powerfully flavoured, slightly crystallised variety, aged for a minimum of 18 months. “Norwegian parmesan,” says Joar, with a modest shrug. Or better, I think, filling my bag.
From here, it’s a short sprint to Apal Sideri on the shores of Hjelmelandsfjord, where white apple blossom sprinkles the slopes like bridal confetti. In the heart of the orchard is a stylish new tasting room, which Dan Olav Sæbø built it from scratch. Back in 2020, the young Norwegian gave up carpentry to take over his family’s 17th-century fruit farm. He looked at all the wasted class-two gravenstein, summer red and aroma apples and thought ‘cider’. In his first year, he won gold for his crisp, sparkling Sølvsider at the Frankfurt Cider World Awards, much to the astonishment of many.
“I thought I’d start with the big one,” he beams cheekily. He pours me a glass of rosé cider — summer in a glass with a pop of raspberry. It’s delicious, but the stunner is the ice cider; complex, honeyed and crisply appley, it’s a refreshing alternative to dessert wine. He asks where I’m off to next and I tell him I’m going to see Mikal Viga, a short ferry hop across the fjord. “Oh, he’s a real character,” he beams, raising his eyebrows.
He’s not wrong. The self-proclaimed ‘king of salmon’ — owner of Mikals Laks salmon smokery — is a force of nature: a big, burly man who grew up on these shores. He hails from a family with a long tradition of riding waves and smoking fish. He was two when he first went sprat fishing on the Jøsenfjord. When he started working for the family fish-farming company in the 1980s, he was paid in salmon. He’s a man with briny blood.“
I don’t believe in cutting corners,” he says, whisking me around the smokery in Skiftun, past towering racks of cold- and hot-smoked salmon. “There’s traceability from roe to table. We dry-salt our fish with nothing but sea salt and sugar, smoking it over beech and juniper. You’ll find some of the world’s best salmon here, where the fjords are clean and deep.”
This isn’t just sales patter. I don’t think I’ve ever tried such incredible salmon: silky, treacly gravlax marinated in spices and aquavit, meaty flakes of salmon cold smoked over juniper and hot-smoked salmon rubbed in pepper and paprika. Each year, the smokery scoops gold in the Norwegian championships, says Mikal, with the look of a man who knows all about winning.
On the road north, things take a scenic turn, with snow-frosted mountains above the spruce forest and fast-flowing Suldalslågen, one of Norway’s most celebrated salmon rivers. At Mo Laksegard farmstay in Sand you can fish for some real beauties during the summer.
“The salmon are renowned for their quality and size,” says Gjermund Daniel Moe, the son of the founder of the business. “Each year, anglers hook Atlantic salmon weighing up to 20kg. The big rush is from mid-July to August.”
I’m not here to catch a fish, however, but to feel what it’s like to be one. I pop on a dry suit, neoprene mask and snorkel to drift downstream on a ‘salmon safari’. I race down the river at what feels like a million miles an hour, over granite pebbles and past eddies. It’s too early for salmon yet, but this little taster of their journey — through Norway’s glacially cold rivers to the sea and beyond to Greenland — certainly gives me a new appreciation of what I’ve been eating.
How to do it:
Norwegian, SAS, Widerøe and Logan Air all fly non-stop from the UK to Stavanger.
Haukali 333, east of Stavanger, offers accommodation in a turf-roofed husmannshus (smallholder’s cottage), along with homegrown and hand-reared produce for self-catering and rowboats that can be borrowed for trout fishing. From NOK 5,786 (£424) for a minimum two-night stay.
Published in Issue 21 (autumn 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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