The artistic meal

The food traditions of Norway and of Western Norway are part of what makes us Norwegian. During the last ten years a culinary revolution has occurred in Bergen.
The 2018 Bergen International Festival presented a performance of Karen Blixen’s short story “Babette’s Feast” created by Louise Beck. Photo: Thor Brødreskifte.

By Anders Beyer

Both within and beyond the city of Bergen local food and gastronomy has become a focal point, and all who live here, as well as our many visitors, are now able to delight in locally sourced seafood and delicacies at good eating establishments. This has even attracted international attention, and has given the capital of Western Norway its status as International City of Gastronomy in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

The ocean and the soil here in the west are life giving in more than one way: Nature’s products supply us with the food we need, while simultaneously and strongly contributing to a wide range of businesses that benefit the entire region. In addition, this new culinary initiative has ensured both joy and enjoyment. An inventive and sustainable use of nature, not least of the ocean that we have in such abundance, has in every way created a win-win situation.

When we can no longer rely on oil as our main source of income, fish and the ocean’s fauna will become more and more important to us. What the wise among us have called disruptive innovation is increasingly a clear necessity, in the form of new measures that will radically change not just our food habits, but also our way of living and our way of being human. It will most likely also change our way of thinking about business.

The food traditions of Norway and of Western Norway are part of what makes us Norwegian. This is because meals are always influenced by history, climate, nature’s products and the methods we apply to utilise them. In this respect, our food culture is as defining in the creation of our identity as Holberg, Ibsen, Grieg, Munch and Fosse.

The taste of Nordvegen

It has been documented and internationally accepted that the gastronomy of Western Norway is of world class, and from a travel industry perspective it is natural to view the culinary as an important part of the cultural city of Bergen. We have for a long time and alongside many other cultural offerings seen the development of sustainable food production and food serving as a central cultural offering in the region. Gastronomy is also incorporated into more general cultural programmes based on the same high requirements to quality that we expect from all forms of artistic efforts.

Photos from the performance of Karen Blixen’s short story “Babette’s Feast” during the 2018 Bergen International Festival. The performance was created by the Danish director Louise Beck. Photos: Thor Brødreskifte.

The Bergen International Festival is no exception. We wish to focus on significant art productions, on cultural growth, and in a larger context, on improving the quality of life. It is through this perspective that the conveyance of and connection between art and gastronomy shall be seen. The Bergen International Festival has for several years via the project Nordvegen cooperated with central partners in Western Norway to realise significant mutual goals that together provide unique experiences for a large local and visiting audience. Events are taking place in Bergen, Os, Ullensvang, Bekkjarvik and Moster, and at the restaurant Lysverket in Bergen a conversation between the Nordvegen artists and chef Christopher Haatuft about musical and culinary art, traditions, faith and doubt, identity and roots will take place.

Over the past ten years developments within art and gastronomy have shown that the two areas are moving ever closer to each other. The connection is elegantly described in Jahn Otto Johansen’s award winning cultural history book «Lutefisk» published in 2011. We are also prone to using artistic terms when describing food, and culinary terms to describe art. An organic apple is no longer just a healthy apple as it was in the 90’s; now it is also a beautiful apple. The fish can be lovely and the lamb sublime. We constantly talk about different products based on a nutritional way of thinking where healthiness is without doubt important, but we season our descriptions with aesthetic terms. In short, food has become art. The healthy has to a large degree become the lovely. Simultaneously, art can be tasteful, light or hard to digest, and so on.

A feast of possibilities

Food as a crucial ingredient in the artistic expression can be seen throughout the entire history of art and literature. In a Danish and Norwegian context there is good reason to mention Karen Blixen’s short story «Babette’s Feast», where the plot is set in Northern Norway, more specifically in Berlevåg in Finnmark. It is a wonderful story about a heavenly good meal.

During this year’s festival we can experience a modern theatre performance based on Blixen’s short story. Babette, who originally fled from the Paris Commune in 1870, is in this version swapped for a visiting food artist. 12 people – the same number as Jesus’ disciples during the last supper – are invited to dine and asked to represent the guests that Blixen describes in her story. Around Babette’s table in this performance, we find both the supercilious and the merciful, alongside old warring soldiers, busybodies and other pronounced personalities. Besides the 12 invited guests, there is a small audience who witness the meal and receive tasters during the show, and who are in this way pulled into the play.

The two Babette-performances at Lystgården in Landås were quickly sold out. This is revealing of the large interest among the audience to a have a different kind of theatre experience, where more senses are piqued and satisfied.

Karen Blixen’s text cannot be eaten. «Babette’s Feast» is just a story about the meal the French cook makes. «Babette’s Feast» does not give us an insight into the gastronomy as it really is or has been in Norway or Denmark. Rather, Blixen’s story shows the gastronomy as a possibility, not a reality – the meal as it could be, a meal of fantasy. During this year’s festival this meal of art comes into existence – but in a different form of art than epic literature, and with a different content than that of Blixen, even though the basis and the inspiration throughout is that of her short story.

Gastronomy is not fiction. But literature can nonetheless move in tandem with the gastronomic universe. «Babette’s Feast» is a brilliant example of how literature can use gastronomic metaphors and narratives. And this year’s festival finely illustrates how gastronomy can also be art – a form of art that one does not just savour, but can be changed by. When the piece of art is complete, it is because it works, because it does something to us, because it touches us and moves us.

© Anders Beyer 2018

English translation: Britt Embry

This article was first published in Norwegian in Bergensavisen on 23 May 2018