06 September 2012

The Bergen Fish Market

The Fish Market in Bergen wasn't what I was expecting.  We love food markets, we count on them - often - for that first introduction to a new country.  Or that experience that lets us really connect with a city.  Usually, there's the sense of frenzy at food markets with an added dose of gore at fish and meat ones.  The fisketorget in Bergen is a different sort of fish market.  This isn't really where the locals get their fish.  It may be where some get their lunch.  More than anything, it's a showcase of the best the Norwegian seafood world has to offer and an excellent place to grab a meal.  Go with an appetite. 
This, right here, is the first bit of blue sky we'd seen in days.  Our last three days in Iceland and the first in Norway had been clouded in... clouds.  With a break in the weather, everyone had an extra spring in their step.  The orange rubber overall wearing vendors had their game faces on, which were big, inviting smiles.  Because of the rain, and the fact that high season is over, we weren't in the crowd that we'd been warned about.  There was plenty of browsing and eating room for everyone.  A lot of the offerings were the same down the line, more smoked and cured salmon varieties than my heart could dream up, caviar, dried cod, live lobster, crab legs, prawns, mussels, whole beautiful fish de-boned and ready for portioning out. It's a compact, mostly redundant market that leaves you salivating.
While there was plenty of fish to buy that you'd have to go and cook yourself, the real star (and what the emphasis was definitely placed on) was the prepared food.  Picnic tables lined the exterior of the stalls and tourists from around the world sat with plates and had the condiment of their choice at hand.  It's rare that you find a centerpiece with Tabasco, HP, thousand island dressing and soy sauce in a neat little huddle.  Sure, the local feel of a food market gets diminished by a high rate of tourism (take the excellent but flash-bulb filled Central Market in Bucharest or Seattle's Pike Place Market which is jam-packed with people just browsing... but you can't blame them with the game of fish catch being played).  But the real live commerce and fresh, local products still make any food market feel authentic in its way.
The authenticity that Bergen's fisketorget held for me was, firstly, in the history of it all.   Bergen is one of the most historically important ports on the Atlantic and the dried cod trade was an enormous part of the city's rise.   As far as modern Bergen goes, the fish market was a perfect representation of the culinary scene- this is a city in which it easy to eat exceptionally well - and the social one - the number of immigrants have been growing exponentially in recent years and, with them, have come new groceries, ethnic cuisines, and flavor influences.   Here, you had fresh, amazing fish being served as fish & chips, fish kebabs, sandwiches.  You had it steamed, smoked, cured, dried, raw, grilled, packaged.  It felt a lot like a New York street fair in which the stuff worth buying is eaten on site, platters are set out, aromas waft, the choices are different to a point, but all fall into a few categories and there's a definite international feel.
The fish market vendors were a lively bunch.  Chef's knives were outstretched with cubes of cured salmon on them.  They laughed and joked with each other in languages that I could tell weren't Norwegian and interacted with customers in accented English.  This man, who was busy grilling up some whale meat, told me he was from Spain.  "We all are," he continued, asking me if I wanted a taste of whale (I declined).  The ones that weren't from Spain hailed from Italy, both countries that give a worker some serious food cred and also the need to go find a job somewhere else. 
I read somewhere that there used to be a rule, from 1630 through 1911, that wealthy Bergeners and restaurant owners were banned from buying their seafood at the fish market.  I can only assume this was to make sure that "commoners" got their fair share of the inexpensive, local catch before it was all bought up.  Nowadays, there seems to be a different sort of delineation between who is at the fisketorget and who's not.  It's essentially local foreigners selling to visiting foreigners.  Nary a local Norwegian in site.  At least in the outdoor tents.  Inside the main buildings of the fish market are a number of upscale restaurants and then a sort of fishmonger boutique.
If the outdoor tents felt like a New York street fair, the indoor market section was Dean & Deluca.  A black and white photo from Bergen fish market past was blown up to cover the back wall.  Everything was chrome and glass, clean, shiny, filled like a jewel case with the diamonds and rubies of the sea.  There was a make your own sandwich station, crustaceans galore, gourmet salt, rubs and seasonings to accentuate the culinary slant of this versus the other market stalls.  The staff was Norwegian and offerings included sushi.
Our choice of lunch?  These gravlaks sandwiches from a stall outside.  They stood out from the salmon sandwich crowd for three reasons:  1) the bread was brown with seeds and cut into much longer slices than some competitors  2) the salmon itself wasn't smoked and sliced like all of the rest, but rather salt-and-sugar cured and flaked apart 3) the normal iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise had been brushed aside for mesclun greens and aioli.  We were very happy with our choice, even if it was a bit much to try to get your mouth around.

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