An army of snowflakes drape over the valley in a continuous flutter, creating an atmosphere that is quite magical, quite harmonious. A picture of white amidst a mountain landscape. And there, at the edge of the farm and near a trickling brook, stands the old smokehouse.
Aged timber cloaked in a history and a promising future. A future, which may not have existed had it not been important to revive and maintain this old tradition by the Traaen family.
The Traaen’s are a great example of those who are committed to their heritage and their connection to nature and the community. I had the privilege of learning about hunting in the Norwegian mountains from Olav and his son, Knut Halvor. Today, they are showing me another important aspect of Norway’s food culture and one they are learning more about themselves. The art of røyking or smoking.
Traditional smoking includes food being placed inside a chamber and exposing it to smoke which comes from the burning of one or more varieties of wood. There are two main methods of smoking, cold smoking and hot smoking. Today, we are using the cold smoking method, in which the ingredients are placed in a smoke-filled chamber away from heat. The smoke temperature varies from source to source, but Olav and Knut Halvor keep the temperature between 10-16°C /50-60°F. The time it takes depends upon what is being smoked and its size, and can range from a few hours to several weeks. Our smoking time will last between 6-24 hours, with differing times for the different products.
Cold smoking does not completely preserve the fish or meat, nor does it cook it. The texture will not alter much during cold smoking, but rather the flavor and color of the smoke binds to them. A protective layer also forms, but it does not kill off bacteria. Therefore, it is important to salt or cure the fish and meat prior to smoking them.
The key to smoking is the type of wood used as this determines the flavor and flavoring is the point of cold-smoking. Knut Halvor is cutting down the juniper branches he collected nearby. The gently swing of his ax removes the needles from the branches and they begin to pile up alongside the tree stump. A palette of green, white and brown.
The fire is lit. It is small and unobtrusive against the rock slabs, just large enough to bring forth smoke. The juniper needles are placed inside the fire causing a burst of aroma as the smoke begins to build up.
The locally-caught fish and meat have already been hung on the upper level of the smokehouse. Olav closes the door and wedges a whittled stick through the lock. The waiting begins.
Soon smoke begins to seep from the cracks and crevices of the timber logs. An old horseshoe hangs on a nail and the smoke bellows from its edges. The entire smokehouse is alive. Its breath is dark and heavy. With the doors closed, we are merely bystanders, removed from the biggest job at hand. Aside from the occasional adding of more juniper needles to the fire chamber, the following hours really belong to the smokehouse.
The fish are the first to finish only a few hours after the doors have been closed. The following day, the meats are taken out. Everything has evolved. The smokehouse has done its job. The aroma is deep and intensely addictive. The flavors have a rich smokiness. The textures are soft, yet slightly firm. A delicate balance stricken between the curing and the smoking.
The smokehouse returns to its resting slumber as the last of the smoke leaves from within its walls.
This is nothing short of an incredible process. One that is actually quite simple and one that starts long before a fire is ever lit inside a chamber. The journey begins around the sourcing of the food and carries through to the maintaining of it and the development of it to become what is served on the plate. I’m grateful for people like the Traaens who value the understanding of their food culture and therefore take the time to understand, learn and apply the process and methods which create it.
Many thanks to the Traaens for their hospitality and willingness to share this experience!