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Eating Toadstools and Buried Lamb Near the Arctic Circle

I flew to the wee Norwegian town of Mosjøen for the Arctic Food Festival, where a group of local and foreign chefs gathered together to bury lambs' legs, eat fly agaric mushrooms, and exchange food knowledge.
September 24, 2014, 6:43pm
All photos courtesy of the author.

If you want to connect with food, you need to go to its source—to learn from those who truly know.

For me, this meant flying to the wee Norwegian town of Mosjøen, host to the Arctic Food Festival, which is now in its second year. The festival is the brainchild of local chef Per Theodor Tørrissen and Scottish-chef-come-urchin-diver Roderick Sloan.

Themed with one word, "community", this year's festival was characterised by a strong spirit of knowledge exchange. It was inclusive, friendly, and focused on the sharing of ideas, culture, and real cooking. Totally free of ego.


Happily swaddled in Arctic-caliber survival suits to combat the weather, an early highlight was fishing on a steep, forest-lined fjord from a beautiful wooden Viking boat. After a few hours, we stopped on the shore to light a fire and get our still-twitching catch of cod and mackerel cleaned up. While we waited for the fire to die down so that we could get cooking, some of us were led on a guided walk down the deserted and unpolluted beach to collect edible fjord-side plants. Upon return, the sea sandwort and sheep's sorrel from the rocky shore were stuffed into the bellies of fish, still in rigor mortis, which where then roasted over the glowing embers and washed down with a few well-earned beers.

Arriving on solid ground from the boat, we were ready for refuelling. The cosy, trinket-filled local restaurant, Vikgarden, served as the unofficial hub of the festival, where a dinner of urchins, mahogany clams, halibut, grouse, and venison was being prepared by Lee Tiernan. At one point during the meal, everybody was brought outside to a fire, where the Norwegian dinner guests then demonstrated the cooking of whale meat.


Lee Tiernan and Roderick Sloan.

The minke whale, thin slices of which had been marinated in diced onion and rapeseed oil, was removed from the marinade and grilled very quickly over the coals, just long enough to brown the outside of the dark red, lean meat, while leaving the inside rare and bloody. The tender meat was rich and succulent—to me the flavour could be described as two parts liver, two parts horse, and one part oyster, with some semblance of the rich, dark umami of soy sauce.

Every local knew how to do this fluently and the cultural exchange continued. It was rustic fare of incredible provenance, each course being paired with a special beer. The meal was topped off with colostrum pudding, made from the first milk produced by a cow after giving birth of the young. Rich in fat and protein, it's prepared frequently in this area. Once boiled and cooled, the final texture varies depending on when the cow was milked. The colostrum we tried was almost crumbly. Washing down the dessert with plentiful caraway akvavit, a strong sense of conviviality was growing between organisers and guests alike.


The following day we arrived to find a shallow grave dug into the ground and a steamy fire raging in the damp hole. Food historian and Viking archaeologist Daniel Serra stood stooped over a nearby table, rubbing fresh juniper berries into half a dozen lamb legs. The legs were wrapped in dough, laid between spiky green juniper branches, and lowered into the hole along with a pile of white hot rocks. Serra talked us through every part of process and its historical relevance as he lit a second fire upon which to roast fist-sized royal purple turnips, harvested some 50 meters away.


While the lamb roasted in its fiery hole, we were treated to a memorable foraging trip with Stephen Barstow, navigating all sorts of edible weeds in amongst the turnips, fat hen, and pineapple weed for making tea and winter cress; woodland plants such as rock bramble and rowan berries; and various mushrooms including hedgehog fungus, chanterelle, edible milk cap and fly agaric. Those present were taught how to eat the iconic fly agaric toadstool, dissolving the toxins by boiling slices in repeated changes of water, a process best described here.

Over the weekend, the trees shifted rapidly from green to an autumnal copper. The changing of the seasons happens very quickly in the far north, and this dramatic arrival of cold heralds the equinox, shortened days, and the arrival of a challenging winter ahead. It's an important time to fatten up.

The morning was garnished by symposium-style talks, including one from a Sami reindeer herder, Laila Spik, who spoke of how animals and plants here were not not only used for food and nourishment, but also for medical purposes. Further thoughts on rare, wild, and perennial vegetables came from Barstow, and I was given the floor to explore the ideas of how eating guinea pigs in Peru benefits each species in the bilateral agreement. In case you're interested, these guinea pigs are kept warm and fed premium garden veg trimmings in people's houses—people who then have a great, fresh source of meat without creating an ecological impact. All these videos of these talks will be online soon enough, so watch the Arktisk Matfestival Twitter feed.


As we exhumed our lunch, the ground bellowing juniper-and-lamb-scented steam, we unpicked the charred dough cover to expose succulent and fatty lamb. Our alfresco lunch around a fire was a complete pleasure, and it seemed there was nobody more fitting to have present than two gentlemen legendary for their serious lunching habit—chefs Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver of St. John restaurant in London. These two big-hearted souls brought their warmest of spirits to the north, and it was these two who brought our afternoon to a close with glorious reflections on everything from logic and meat to magic.

For a memorable, informative, and reaffirming few days, save the dates for next year—Sunday 20th and Monday 21st September 2015. After a season of diving for sea urchins in the Arctic, the motivated and inspiring Sloan will be curating the event, which will be centred on the theme "oceans". I'm honoured to let you know that I have been asked to be the host, and I can really say, with every bone in my body, that I look forward to welcoming you all to the wonderful little town of Mosjøen, and introducing you to some friends of mine.