Norwegians love foraging so much they actually have a helpline that tells you when to go mussel picking. After 48 hours in the company of Monica Berg, the creative force behind Oslo’s fashionable Himkok bar, I’m steeped in Nordic trivia of this sort. “Growing up in Norway I got used to opening the larder and finding an entire elk hanging there,” says the award-winning bartender, whose CV also includes co-founding the industry think-tank P(our) and a stint as mixological sidekick to Jason Atherton.
With her gold-flecked black manicure and trendy trainers, Berg isn’t your archetypal sweater-clad Scandi. Yet she’s at the forefront of a new generation of epicures now raising the profile of Norway’s native food and drink.
Himkok is particularly famous for its aquavit, which Berg and her team distil on site in a gleaming copper pot still. Every season they devise a new variation on the traditional caraway spirit, which is then meticulously mixed into cocktails full of Norwegian flavours, including cloudberries, birch leaves, honey and seaweed. The ingredients are wholesome but the bar is hygge with a hard edge: black leather booths, distressed render and chrome fittings that glint in the candlelight.
Half a mile away at Fuglen, a hip coffee shop selling midcentury Norwegian furniture and cocktails, they’re also banging the drum for their national spirit. Sunk into a vintage leather bucket chair, I eye up an aquavit Negroni before settling on a glacial coupe of aquavit, sake, cucumber and fennel.
“Ten years ago not that many bars used aquavit, but lately we’ve seen a real wave of people wanting to reconnect with local produce,” says Fuglen co-owner and head mixologist Halvor Digernes, a handsome chap with specs and some very involved tattoos. When he’s not managing the bar, Digernes is a keen forager – hours after we meet he’s knee-deep in icy water harvesting seaweed for his next cocktail list.
It’s still early days for craft distilling in Norway; up until 2005 all the country’s spirits were produced by the state-owned distillery Arcus. But a fresh crop of artisan aquavit makers is now coming through. Oslo Håndverksdestilleri recently launched Blank Akevitt (about £25 for 50cl), a delicious unaged aquavit made from botanicals that grow wild in the nearby Marka nature reserves. These include caraway, meadowsweet, heather, sorrel and chamomile, as well as a touch of gin-y juniper that makes it very mixable (the distillery makes an excellent dry gin too, called Vidda Tørr, about £43 for 70cl).
As we sip aquavit and tonics, co-founder Marius Vestnes tells a story about diving into a freezing mountain lake to get a lump of ice for his G&T. I always thought I was a bit of an ice nut, but that’s what I call a sharpener.