Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Christmas Flashbacks

Todd just got back a few days ago from a whirlwind trip to Lund, Sweden and Trondheim, Norway, where he was giving talks at universities there. After his talk at Trondheim and before his flight back home, he managed to squeeze in a visit to his family's ancestral town. 

He also managed to find the time, good boyfriend that he is, to pick up some presents for me. Naturally, my request was for souvenirs of the edible variety, and Todd came through with these typically Norwegian items:

The stuff that looks a bit like tortillas is lefse, a flatbread made from potatoes and cooked on a griddle, actually much like a tortilla is.

The brown square, cut from the giant block you see next to it, is brunost, or "brown cheese."It's a type of goat cheese made by boiling milk, cream and whey for hours, making the mixture relatively hard but with a creamy texture, and giving it a distinct caramel-like color and taste. It's apparently kind of an acquired taste as it's quite strong and rich, and if you don't like the mixing of sweet and savory it's probably not for you. Todd and I are both fans, though you can't really eat a lot at once; it's best shaved thinly with a cheese slicer, like the one in the above photo (which I am tempted to steal when I leave for the States next month).

Oddly enough, for me these two foods conjure up images of Christmas - specifically this past Christmas, which was the first one Todd and I spent together and also the first one I spent away from my family. I thought it was important to spend such a significant holiday getting to know Todd's family a bit more, but since they all live in the Seattle area, an entire continent away from my family in New York, that would mean being not being home for the holidays for the first time in my life. Holidays in general, but Christmas in particular, are very important to me, so this was a big step. I think it was worth it though, especially since it gave me a chance to see Todd's childhood home in Ballard, to visit Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, and to ride to the top of the Space Needle for magnificent views across the city to the mountains beyond (miraculously our excursion downtown took place on virtually the only sunny day of the trip).

After having Christmas Eve dinner with his mother's side of the family, Todd, his parents and I boarded a ferry and then drove to his parents' cabin at Paradise Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. It's a beautiful area despite the perpetually rainy weather, which I actually didn't mind so much; after spending most of the holiday season in warm, sunny Southern California, I was in need of a good dose of chilly winter weather. Paradise Bay is a few minutes' drive from the little seaside town of Port Townsend, where Todd's father's brother owns a winery and lives with his wife in a pretty house set back in the woods. It feels rustic and isolated [they have chickens!], but very comfortable and cozy, and that is where we spent Christmas Day, and where I was able to sample more Norwegian delicacies.

Actually, I tried the first treat back in Ballard: homemade krumkake, thin, crispy cookies cooked on a special iron, kind of like a waffle iron, and then quickly rolled up while still hot into their traditional cone shape. They are delicious, though quite messy to eat as they tend to shatter on the first bite. I meant to ask Todd's dad (who is the Norwegian side of the family) to break out the krumkake iron and show me how to make them, but we ran out of time. Maybe next year!

On Christmas morning we devoured a big ring of kringle, a chewy, flaky pastry shaped like a pretzel and filled with marzipan (which is one of my all-time favorite treats), purchased from a Scandinavian bakery in Ballard. Apparently the day before Christmas Eve long lines form for this treat, and I can see why: warmed in the oven, the almondy filling in the center became oozy and sticky, while the puffed edges retained some golden crunch. I admit I ate more than my fair share. Luckily, I had time to get a run in before we were due to meet Todd's uncle at his winery, so I was able to work up an appetite for dinner.

Todd's aunt (who is also of Norwegian heritage) cooked up a wonderful meal. Unfortunately I almost ruined my appetite feasting on the Norwegian-style appetizers: pickled herring in sour cream, smoked salmon, and the previously mentioned brown cheese, among much else (not to worry, though, I managed to fit in both dinner and dessert [which was an English figgy pudding with hard sauce made by Todd's uncle; brought me right back to Christmastime in London!]). Someone had to eat all that herring; I was one of the few who really liked it, it seemed.

Finally, the next morning, our last at the cabin, we had lefse, the flatbread in the photo up top, prepared in the traditional way: heated, spread with melted butter and cinnamon, and rolled up. Yum! Apparently it is also traditional to eat it rolled up with lutefisk: pungent, gelatinous whitefish preserved in lye. Luckily this was one Norwegian specialty that did not make it into the Christmas roster. I don't think even I, lover of fishy things that I am, would have gone for that.

I did see my family for about a week around New Year's (not quite the same as being home for the holidays, but still good), and I'm glad I chose to spend Christmas with Todd's family. I don't know what this year's holiday season will bring, whether I will spend it in on the East Coast or West, but if I have anything to say about it, it will include herring, brown cheese - and, of course, family, no matter whose it is.

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