Kvitnes Gård: A 23-course meal in a remote fjord
Molly Harris/ BBC:
At the dock, I stood stripping off layers of gloves and thermal coveralls that had kept me warm and dry on the boat journey across waves and fjords to reach Kvitnes Gård – a remote farmstead in far north Norway among the fjords of the Artic Circle. The cold wind sliced away at the day’s feeling of wonder as I carried my suitcase between pens of rabbits and goats and rows of leafy greens. But as soon as I stepped into the centuries-old ancestral home of chef Halvar Ellingsen – now a fine-dining restaurant and guesthouse – I knew my time here would be extraordinary. Formerly of Oslo’s Michelin-starred restaurants Bagatelle and Ylajali (both now closed) and the youngest chef to be named Norway’s best chef, Ellingsen returned home in 2015 to refocus his exacting standards on growing, harvesting and refining the spoils of northern Norway. With honed skills and modern techniques, his fine dining restaurant, which opened in 2020, became an outlet for expressing family memories while retelling the story of Norwegian cuisine through an introspective 23-course tasting menu that changes with the seasons. Its huge success means that guests are waiting up to six months to book a table and taste the updated, hyper-local dishes that reflect how northern Norway’s rural communities once lived and dined.
Despite Kvitnes Gård’s renown within Norway, when I entered, the atmosphere inside was laidback and informal. Rows of shoes lined the foyer and black-and-white family portraits punctuated the living room walls. Ellingsen handed me an 18th-Century key to my room, where I thawed out for a few minutes before joining the other guests to step back into the blustery afternoon for a closer look at the grounds. Catherine Thoresen, part owner and manager of Kvtines Gård, sauntered over to a pen filled with hungry baby goats and handed out bottles for a bit of help feeding the kids. In the next pen over, large glossy rabbits hopped toward us as we strolled through the garden. Ellingsen explained each row of crops, from pineapple weed to cloudberries. Beyond the beds, hens and roosters pecked around the greenhouse and the pig’s barn. The chef shared that some produce and herbs must be grown in the greenhouse to avoid importing anything, thanks to the Arctic Circle’s icy temperatures.
Around the corner of the farmhouse, kitchen apprentice Erlend Kittang placed wood into the stone oven to smoke salmon for dinner. Back inside with hot tea made of local herbs, Ellingsen explained that his country’s cuisine has been grossly misunderstood. Many people, he said, think Norwegian dishes are limited to basic techniques such as curing and boiling, resulting in relatively bland, hardy dishes like jellied eel and dried fish. But there is so much more to Norwegian ingredients, and Ellingsen has made it his focus to change the perceptions of his motherland’s food one guest at a time. For Ellingsen, enjoying Norwegian cuisine is as much about experiencing the landscape as it is about savouring the flavours. Pointing through the window to the fjord, Hellfjorden, the chef reflected, “I was just outside there, in my father’s boat, and the midnight sun’s light was shining. We were eating freshly caught cod and potatoes with flatbread and butter. That’s a really traditional food for the area because we had those ingredients.” Ellingsen explained that Norwegian food was – and still is – delicious, but the long, harsh winters north of the Arctic Circle meant limited fresh produce, and until the discovery of Norwegian oil in 1971, the country was quite poor. This limited the northern cuisine to hardy ingredients that were readily available, such as the simple meal Ellingsen ate with his father. “Here [in Norway], people are more aware of what they’re eating,” Ellingsen said. “If people [at Kvitnes Gård] are thinking more about what they are eating when they get home… that’s when we’re getting somewhere,” he said. “So, that’s what I’m doing by helping people get to know northern Norway.” At dinner that evening, I started to get a better sense of what he meant. As the 23 courses were placed on the table over several hours, the elemental dishes arrived with dramatic presentation. While the dinner menu changes daily based on the freshest ingredients sourced from his farm and the fjord, Ellingsen’s passion for Norwegian heritage and commitment to local, seasonal ingredients was evident in every dish, from smoked reindeer and pickled seaweed to cured egg tartlets and blood pancakes.
While Ellingsen nodded to the history of Norwegian food through traditional techniques such as smoking and curing, he also transformed familiar farm-sown and foraged ingredients such as fjord seaweed and fiddlehead ferns. In one wild mushroom dish, the fungi were layered with nuanced flavours: dried and ground into a cracker, whipped into a mousse and smoked for a concentrated taste of the forest. Ellingsen also incorporated exciting new dishes that pulled from the local landscape. Quail egg with wild spinach and herb emulsion, slow-cooked celery root with goat’s butter, juniper berries and fermented celery juice, and a modern take on gahkko, a traditional bread made by Norway’s indigenous Sami people, all featured on the menu, representing the country’s expansive flora, fauna and culture. But what truly made my time at Kvitnes Gärd extraordinary was Ellingsen’s ability to teach me about my own ancestral culture through his experiences. Despite having family still living in Norway, I never truly felt a strong connection or understanding to that branch of the family tree. However, a single night in the remote fjord provided so much insight into my own roots. From seeing the determination required to thrive in such a harsh environment to tasting the varied landscape on each plate, I grew to understand not only the country, but my own heritage and influences more deeply. Through his craft and expert skill, Ellingsen encompasses a little known and underappreciated corner of the world. With every ingredient, technique and plate of food, dining at Kvitnes Gärd proves that northern Norwegian cuisine can no longer be reduced to a stereotype. BBC.com’s World’s Table “smashes the kitchen ceiling” by changing the way the world thinks about food, through the past, present and future.