The Oslo Rocks team held three Taste Offs of traditional Norwegian meats, whale versus reindeer, to determine the victorious victual and Rudolph reigns supreme.
Our first taste-off was at the fishmarket in Bergen’s famous treehouse district. We tried fresh caught Minke whale steak grilled and served with salad and an A1-type of steak sauce. Nothing fancy, but perfectly grilled to medium rare. The texture of all our Minke selections was typical of a nice sirloin or flank cow steak. The flavor varied by restaurant or market vendor. At the fish market, the Minke steak was juicy and savory, with a hint more salt or brine than we would expect from a cow.
If you’ve never had whale, there is nothing fishy about it – it’s a cow that lived in salt water it’s whole life. Minke whale is the most commonly served whale in Norway, although the whale food market is not what it used to be. Quotas versus kills have gone down in recent years, though whale is still an affordable delicacy in Norway. While there is international controversy over whaling for food or blubber, Norway’s cultural take on whaling for food is no different than North Dakota’s cultural practice of serving bison burgers or filets. The Minke is a respected mammal that is a rich part of Norway’s heritage, and heavy regulations are meant to safeguard both whale populations and the whaling cultural practice.
Also at the fish market, we had our first sampling of reindeer in sausage form. Our Bergen reindeer experience was nothing extraordinary. The sausage was very similar to deer sausage, but significantly less gamey.
In Norway, reindeer are both hunted and raised, but the meat found in restaurants and markets is primarily from raised reindeer. Reindeer is legal for export, unlike whale, but hardly is. That’s shame because reindeer is now listed as one of the most lean and healthy meats on par with fish for benefits from its Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Reindeer have come under criticism for higher levels of cadmium found in their livers, with some even calling them Radioactive Reindeer (Rudolph’s glowing nose?). However, these criticisms are not much different than mercury levels in some fish – they should be taken seriously, but not to the point of dietary exclusion. The average Norwegian, however, only its 300 grams of reindeer a year.
Bergen Taste-Off: Whale – 1, Reindeer – 0
So the whale steak takes the lead, simply because our first reindeer offering wasn’t exotic by any standards for deer-consuming North Dakotans. Our second taste-off was at Louise Restaurant and Bar at Akker Brygge on the water near the Nobel Peace Center. The whale steak, now served with a homemade béarnaise and a light polenta mash was succulent and savory, perfectly cooked and unforgettable – just the right amount of natural brine which reduces any need for over seasoning. The reindeer, however, now had the opportunity to show it’s diversity. Served as pate with cranberries and cashews, the liver spread was not to everyone’s taste, but for our foodies, it was a perfectly flavored and textured delicacy. So, while in quality and preparation, this taste-off could’ve been a wash, but we’ll give it to reindeer for diversity:
Akker Brygge Taste Off: Whale – 1, Reindeer – 1.
For our final taste off, we head to Nilsen Spiseri, a self-proclaimed traditional Norwegian restaurant minutes walking from Oslo Central Station. We held our final Oslo Rocks team dinner here and all 13 of us had some form of whale, reindeer, or salmon, and washed it all down with toast of traditional Norwegian Aquavit.
The whale at Nilsen, unfortunately, was the least appealing of all our dishes. Served and prepared the same, as a traditional cow steak, this Minke was overcooked and lacked the brininess and succulence of the two previous taste-offs. A disappointing entry in this final round. The reindeer, however, knocked it out of the park. The reindeer flank steak was succulent, savory, perfectly prepared medium rare and smothered in béarnaise with potato and cranberry. There was no similarity to our deer with this steak – if you didn’t know, you would swear you were eating the finest cut beef filet except for the lighter color. And to put the nail in the whale’s coffin, the reindeer also came to us as rich, savory and creamy stew.
Final Taste-Off Verdict: Whale – 1, Reindeer 2
There’s no question you must try both whale and reindeer when visiting Norway. But in our cross-country battle of the delicacies, Rudolph is our red-nosed champion.