Nordmarka is a forested area surrounding Oslo; more than 300 square kilometres of wilderness criss-crossed by a network of forest roads, paths, and rivers. This is where Oslo dwellers go to recreate and draw fresh air – and also where our fresh drinking water comes from. Rich with natural resources, Nordmarka has always been a source of natural produce: Timber was rafted down the wild rivers all the way down to the Oslo docks until the mid-19th century – and ice, a lucrative means of export in times before the freezer, was transported in large chunks down to boats that brought them to England and the Continent.
Most of the people living off the resources in Marka, however, were peasants or serf-like husmenn who struggled to make ends meet. Life on a farm in the forest was by and large self-sufficient, meaning food had to be cropped, raised, hunted or foraged. If the farmer needed other goods, he had to travel to the city, a long journey by horse and carriage (or sleigh in winter) to trade.
Hard winters and crop failure were constant threats, not to mention the wolves and bears prowling the woods in search for sheep or other livestock. Self-sufficient farming made people vulnerable, but they naturally developed tremendous skills when it came to exploiting every bit of their yield.
A good example is milk. A small-scale peasant or husmann would typically keep three to four cows that would be kept inside a dairy barn in the winter and let out to graze in summer. If the winter had been long, the cows would be completely starved by spring and would have to be helped out of the barn. From late May to early August, the cows would gain nutrition and fatten up grazing on the summer pastures. The larger farms located closer to the Oslo fjord would have summer dairy farms (seter) higher up in the Nordmarka area, and bring their livestock up to spend their summers outside.
When summer grazing, a cow can yield up to 20-25 litres a day. Throughout the ages, creative peasants have developed skilful methods of preserving milk by transforming it into cream, sour cream, yoghurt, butter, and various types of cheese. This was, of course, not only a means of preservation – the milk was refined into food that could be stored throughout winter and eaten when there was little else to be found. On the seter, a young woman would be working all summer, milking the cows twice a day and processing their milk by skimming, curdling, heating and churning it. Budeia, as she was called, was trusted with the production of food that would provide the family during the unproductive season.
In the second half of the 20th century, all the small-scale farms and setre in Nordmarka were abandoned. Some are now used for recreational purposes, providing shelter for hikers and giving us a hint of how life must have been before Oslo was a bus ride and a pleasant stroll away.
Liggern is a classical example of a small Nordmarka farm. Situated on a small hill, it overlooks the Øyungen lake with a beautiful view. Once a summer dairy for a large farm in central Oslo (or Christiana as it was called then), Liggern is referred to as a farm from the mid 17th century. Until the 1950s it doubled as a café for hikers as well as a schoolhouse for children from the local farms (of whom, in 1952, there were five).
In 1897, the great Norwegian illustrator Olaf Gulbransson (1873-1958) married Inga Liggern, who was born and raised on the farm. In his illustrated autobiography, Det var engang… (1934), Gulbransson wrote and illustrated several stories about people and myths in the forest surrounding Liggern in the late 19th century. The stories describe a mystical world of haunted lakes, lawless vagabonds and old sages living in wooden huts – but also tell the tale of everyday life, love and death in a small society where nature sets the rules.
Today, the farmhouse, barn and adjoining cabins are owned by Oslo Architects’ association. They kindly gave us permission to use the barn and its beautiful surroundings.
Coming to Liggern, we wanted to give our guests the feeling of how life must have been on a self-sufficient farm. Since August marks the end of the summer dairy season, we chose to make a milk workshop, where sour cream, butter and fresh cheese would be important components of the evening’s meal.
For this purpose, we got 20 litres of delicious, organic and raw milk from Bygdøy Royal Estate. Historically, the contrast is striking: Milk from the King’s cows transported to a small-scale farm in the forest! However, the cows are no longer the King’s estate: From 2003 on, all husbandry at Bygdøy Royal Estate is being taken care of by the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, whose 60 cows yield 373 000 litres of milk a year.
The 20 litres we brought to Liggern, were skimmed, the fatty cream separated from the milk. About 10% of the milk can be skimmed for this purpose. A farmer would use a separator, but if the milk is allowed to stand still for a few hours, the cream will float to the top and can be taken off carefully with a ladle or cup. This is painstaking work, not entirely precise – but the yellowish cream has a different hue and texture from the bluish milk and should be easy to see. It is, of course, imperative that the milk isn’t homogenised – if it is, it won’t separate at all.
We wanted sour cream, so we needed a starter culture for this purpose. Any sour milk product will do – and the good thing is that once you have made your own sour cream, a few tablespoons in a litre of cream will be enough to start a new culture.
The cream and culture was left in room temperature for 24 hours, after which it had the stiff texture and fresh aroma of proper sour cream. We kept one litre for dinner, and churned the other litre to butter.
Churning is an interesting process where all the fat is lumped together and separated from the lactose. Using a whisk or shaker, you churn away for several minutes – until, as if by magic, little yellow grains appear in the sour cream. The grains become lumps, increasing in size and eventually forming a delicious, yellow island of butter in a sea of sweet, white buttermilk. We now have two separate products that can be used for different things: The butter, when squeezed in cold water a couple of times to make sure all the buttermilk is out, and enriched in taste with a pinch of salt, is ideal as a spread or for cooking and baking. The buttermilk, as a Danish guest showed us, is an essential ingredient in the traditional koldskål, a sweet dish with eggs and sugar. It should be tried with blueberries. Buttermilk can be used in bread, or, if you want to close the circle, use the buttermilk in pancakes and fry them in your newly churned butter!
We also made cottage cheese, a simple form of cheese where rennet is added to the milk and heated up to 30-35 degrees and then set for an hour’s time to make it coagulate. This can be done with skimmed milk, but a sour culture should be added before the heating and rennet. When coagulated, the milk should have a pudding-like consistency, enabling you to cut it in dices with a knife. When the dices are cut, you will see that a separation has taken place: The acidity of the rennet has caused the milk proteins to form thick masses, curds – floating about in a yellowish liquid known as whey. To make cottage cheese, we only need the curds: drain as much of the whey off them as possible, add fresh cream and sugar or salt – and you’ll have a brilliant foundation for a sweet or savoury meal.
The whey can be used for a number of things, and in Norway, brunost (brown cheese) and myseprim are popular whey products – although strictly speaking, they aren’t cheeses at all.
Using all parts of the milk was the first challenge. The second was how to make sure all guests had enough food for the evening. Luckily, they came prepared and showed great enthusiasm in finding out what the surroundings had to offer. Øyungen is known to be a good trout fishing lake, but this late in the season, we didn’t expect the most impressive catches. When the water surface gets warm, the fish plunges down to the bottom, so a boat is necessary to get out to the deeper parts. Borrowing a canoe, our heroic guests ventured out and caught a good number of perch – which tasted great when fried in butter and served with boiled potatoes and beet salad.
August is the month where nature has a lot of “bonus material” to offer, and this year the forest was so alive with blueberries and wild raspberries it was obvious they had to make up a part of the meal. The Danish koldskål was marvellous with berries – so was the cottage cheese and the pancakes. We also found a few handfuls of chanterelles – but they should be saved for our autumn event.
Photographs by Svein G. Kjøde
Text by Kristian Krohg-Sørensen