Creative People - Nevada Berg of North Wild Kitchen

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A summer’s morning in Norway and we are leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Oslo and heading to the mountains. It was raining at daybreak and an early morning mist obscured the view of the fjord from the window of our hillside apartment.  A little less than an hour later, as the gently winding roads take us due west past lush woodland and towering mountains, the weather changes as dramatically as the scenery. 

We are on our way to meet Nevada Berg, a writer and food blogger who recently made her home in the medieval valley of Numedal, a place dominated by its mountainous landscape and ancient forests. Numedal is an attractive place by any measure: leafy and picturesque, with traditional stabbur store houses dotted along a wide river flanked by meadows carpeted with wildflowers.

We’ve arranged to meet Nevada at the local stave church near Rollag, a village a couple of kilometres from their farm. By the time we arrive the sky is the deepest kingfisher blue. We tumble out of the car, breathing in the fresh mountain air and holding our faces up to the warmth of the midsummer sun. Nevada and her husband Espen greet us with big smiles and beckon us into the cool interior of the church, where they introduce us to the vicar and we chat about life in the local community and the church’s long history.  Then we must dash.  Apparently the local mayor is in the area and has agreed to give us an impromptu tour of the nearby open air folk museum, a collection of dwellings and storehouses - some dating back as far as the middles ages - that have been brought together and furnished with artefacts and traditional furniture and linens donated by the local people over the years.  As we step tentatively around these precious, wooden buildings, Nevada points out some of the primitive kitchenware used for butter making and preparing lefse, the Norwegian flatbread she regularly makes herself. 

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Nevada has a great interested in understanding a country’s food history and culture. The couple arrived in Norway with their son Oliver after many years of nomadic life.  She’s always loved to cook, and travelling and living away from home in countries where she hasn’t always been familiar with the produce that was available to her has meant that she’s had to learn to adapt. Espen is Norwegian, but Nevada grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah.  They met while they were both studying in the UK, and over the years they’ve made temporary homes in Italy and Mozambique. More recently though, Nevada had felt a longing for a home and a community to feel rooted in. They moved to Numedal three years ago and feel very much at home here. 

I just feel envious! It’s turned into another fine summer’s day and back at their 17th century farm we sit and chat on the veranda that overlooks their own stabbur and outbuildings. The children run around the garden, chasing the hens, picking up chicks and searching for the eggs their mothers have laid. Not for the first time since we arrived, I’m struck by the majesty of the landscape, but also by its quietness. It’s something that Nevada has taken to heart.  “We have embraced the stillness and calmness and we take more time to cook and eat together,” she tells me. “The farm is such a reflection of my kitchen these days. It’s really important to us that we utilise the land, so we raised our first brood of chickens shortly after we arrived and planted some fruit trees, vegetables and herbs this past spring.”

In the months following her arrival in Numedal she connected with a local food group there and a bunch of local producers. She began to explore Norwegian cuisine, meeting the people behind the local products and found a community of food lovers who are passionate about following their family’s culinary traditions.  Inspired by the people she met and the recipes they shared, she began experimenting with her own versions, using local produce and foraging in the wilderness around her to make seasonal dishes from scratch.  “I did a lot of research and spent a lot of time talking to the local people to find out what’s in season - what you pick when, and why,”  she says.  She started cataloguing everything she was learning, from the recipes to the stories and folklore.  Shortly afterwards, keen to share what she had learned, she started her blog, North Wild Kitchen.  “I was looking for a way to combine my passions of photography and writing, and food and culture and history,” she says, laughing at the long list of prerequisites. The following year, gourmet food magazine Saveur named Nevada their “best new voice” and North Wild Kitchen the overall blog of the year.  “That was a real surprise!” she says.  “I think I said something like, are you sure?”

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An adventurer at heart, she revels in the pleasure of discovering food like an explorer - fresh and earthy, not plastic wrapped from the supermarket. Not that popping out to the supermarket is an option.  “You catch it yourself or you know someone who has caught it - usually by word of mouth and you buy it from them,” she says, “there’s no butcher’s shop or fishmonger.” The nearby woodland and surrounding countryside provides a never ending source of inspiration, too.  Here, she found she had access to lingonberries, bilberries and a lot of wild herbs and produce. “Not so much this year because it’s been so hot, but we love foraging for mushrooms.  We found chanterelles just across the stream last year.”

When she was approached by a publisher about authoring her own cookbook, she saw it as an opportunity to distil her passion for food, and food stories, into something tangible that reflects her journey as a cook and as a historian. “I didn’t want it just to be a cookbook, I wanted it to be a storybook, too - to tell people where things came from.”  It’s designed to be an antidote to the “new Nordic” cooking. “That kind of food is beautiful and wonderful, but not something you can necessarily replicate at home,” she says.  “The idea was to make it more about comfort food and everyday cooking.”

North Wild Kitchen: Cooking From the heart of Norway was published late last year. It’s is chock-full of simple, flavoursome recipes like wild garlic soup, fragrant fish stews, spiced buns and aniseed waffles. But it promises, and delivers, so much more than recipes. The book chronicles Nevada’s voyage of discovery, telling of the rituals and traditions of Norwegian cuisine and exploring some ancient methods of cooking that do wonders to enhance the natural flavours of foods.

She admits that at times she was initially apprehensive about preparing dishes from recipes that had been perfected over generations. “I remember being very nervous when I made lefse for the first time because the older generation of women here have been doing it for years,” she tells me. “You have to roll it out really thin and wide, so I thought it must be tricky, but when I did try it for myself I found it wasn’t that difficult.” 

I confess to her while I’m flipping through the book that, as delicious as they look, I don’t feel confident baking sweet buns, but she assures me there’s nothing difficult about them. “Of course, practice helps but the truth is they’re not a daunting thing to make at all,” she says. “ They don’t have to be uniform and perfect. But then I’m not a perfectionist, so the more rustic the better for me!”  Encouraged, I try the cinnamon Bergen buns when I get home.  While they’re quite time consuming, it’s true that there’s nothing very complicated about them, and they’re deliciously sweet and comforting when eaten straight from the oven - they don’t hang around the kitchen for long. But, of course, what makes us feel content and comforted when we read a cookbook isn’t really the food, it’s the story about the food; where it’s come from and how it’s been prepared.  

As the evening sun begins its descent below the tree line we must prepare to head back to the city. We say our goodbyes and thank this warm spirited family for their great hospitality. As the sky begins to darken and we meander back through this magical, ancient land, it occurs to me; while her dishes are inspired and inventive, Nevada is, to my mind, first and foremost a gifted storyteller.

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All food photographs are from the book and are © Nevada Berg. Other photographs © Paper Thin Moon.

North Wild Kitchen: Cooking From the Heart of Norway is available now: https://prestelpublishing.randomhouse.de/book/North-Wild-Kitchen/Nevada-Berg/Prestel-com/e534872.rhd