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This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste Issue
I remember once as a child walking to school in a snowstorm, uncharacteristic of north London suburbia. I had an illicit packet of pear drops in my pocket and, as I popped one into my mouth, the delicious discordancy of the winter blast and the boom of summertime on my tongue bloomed like a hot tear landing on ice. Although it might seem utterly insignificant, the moment returns to me more than once during my time on Moskenes, the most northerly inhabited island on Norway’s Lofoten archipelago.
This is proper fairy-tale country – not the sanitised twittering of a Disney drama, but rather the unbridled, noir-ish sting of a Grimm fable. The weather is brutal, the living equally so, and the Norse gods that rule over its humpbacked peaks are a far cry from the velveteen, indolent deities of Roman or Greek myth. Yet amid the canine-toothed mountaintops and silvered seas hides Holmen – a hotel, yes, but also a giant pear drop clinging to the craggy coastline, a nugget of decadence against the howl of the wild.
It’s the thrill of this juxtaposition that strikes me repeatedly during my four nights here for the Kitchen on the Edge of the World, a food-centric retreat bringing Michelin-quality chefs into the wilderness. While the cooking is, obviously, outstanding, it’s the clash of luxe and low-key – zhuzhed-up hot dogs conjured over the camp fire, shots of potent aquavit downed on a bone-white beach, the nightly return to the kitchen for five-star feasts – that make it a truly visceral experience which drinks down the perilous landscape to the last drop.
The concept was concocted by Ingunn Rasmussen, the owner of Holmen, and chef Valentine Warner, a mercurial, impish figure with the tongue of a poet and a penchant for deftly wielding both a fishing rod and a metaphor. After happening upon Warner’s television series Valentine Warner Eats Scandinavia – in which he forages, fishes and flame-cooks with Scandi kitchen legends including Magnus Nilsson, Niklas Ekstedt and the team at Noma – Rasmussen rang him with an enigmatic “I think you’ll like what I’m doing here” and an invitation to visit. The result is an imaginative antidote to modern living and, in Warner’s words, “an opportunity to get out of digital mayhem”.
Rather than polished-and-planned, silver-service dining, the emphasis is on submitting to the elements and recalling an ancestral way of eating in tune with the natural environment, even if that environment is unpredictable and extreme. More than once I interrupt Warner marching determinedly off to replenish our stocks of halibut or whiskered wolffish. Meals are punctuated with hands-on expeditions hiking, kayaking, fishing and even knife-forging. In short, those not secretly harbouring a Viking heart need not apply. Warner confides to me: “We’re for the curious and the adventurous. Years ago you could wrap luxury up in a mahogany box with a golden key, but I just don’t think that’s where we are anymore.”
There are three Kitchen on the Edge of the World events per year, coinciding with the equinoxes in March and September as well as summer solstice. I’m heading into the eternal dawn and dusk of midsummer, in which alongside Rasmussen and Warner I’m to join famed fish chef Nathan Outlaw, cocktail wizard Nick Strangeway and Bridget Nicholls, the founder of the insect festival Pestival. Previous guest chefs and speakers include Gill Meller of River Cottage, author Matt Haig and Mark Hix, whose cod sperm on toast has already transitioned into local legend.
I pass glassy lakes reflecting upside-down skies, twisting bridges presumably built by brutalist trolls and mustard-mossed rocks wrinkled like a manatee’s back until I reach Holmen, a cubist scattering of tilted, lopsided dwellings and a jagged, silver “weather house” along the shore. After hefting my suitcase across the crags into my cabin – an adorable, dandelion-floored, Toblerone-chunk of a dwelling with long stripes of window, from which I’ll listen to the gulls cry and spy on the kitchen team fishing at night – I join the rest of our party on the main deck to nibble cured trout on rye bread and sip “adult Ribena”, Strangeway’s mischievous combination of gin, blackcurrant liqueur and blackcurrant leaf.
The modest building where we gather was once a fish factory, erected in the 1900s by Rasmussen’s family, while the newer surrounding cabins were constructed using the same techniques and materials. Inside, sea-glass chandeliers, colossal fish skeletons and hunting implements hang from the beamed ceilings, and sheepskins from local producer Lofoten Wool drape across leather sofas. We cluster along the long tables in front of the open kitchen as Warner settles into his natural role as dinner party host, introducing us to Outlaw – whose cooking is apparently akin to “a bear wrapping tiny, exquisite Christmas presents” – and presiding over the plates of halibut sushi, Lofoten lamb in seaweed and langoustine, crab and dill-flecked barley that emerge. The latter is so good it almost moves me to tears, my heightened emotional state the only explanation I can muster for subsequently drinking far too many aquavit espresso martinis – that, and the fact that without the wagging finger of dusk there’s no boundary to deter you from indulging late into the night.
Fortunately, my extravagance doesn’t translate into a hangover, as the next morning kicks off with a cocktail masterclass from Strangeway. While his laboratories in Copenhagen and London are stocked with sous vides, ultrasound baths and vacuum packs, Strangeway explains how Lofoten is a lesson in simplicity and flexibility: “you can’t get everything you want, so you have to adapt and use what’s around you.” His Arctic distillations are infused with the recurrent rhythms of local flavours that I’ll come to recognise as the week progresses: juniper, blackcurrant, aquavit. Strangeway’s session is followed up by a cooking demonstration from Warner in which we learn how to make sorrel soup and mackerel tataki before striking out into the mountains with Rasmussen’s brother, Audun.
The weather has turned from golden to grim and we squeak and slide over the wet rocks, accompanied by a tufted black cat that follows us like an omen. Low-lying grey cloud presses its back against the mountain peaks like a fellow feline as we pick our way past murmuring waterfalls, tiny purple and white orchids and an eerie rowing boat strung up on the lake, waiting to ferry someone to the next world. We tread the mashed, mulchy ground beneath one of the many stock fish racks that dot the islands, caught in the ferocious stink of the swaying, lantern-esque cod carcasses that hang like screaming bats from the rafters.
Wind-blasted and sodden, we return to see resident potter Gunvor Tangrand wandering the decking in a tartan dressing gown, clay smeared on her cheek and tangled in her hair, the Arctic Circle’s answer to Kate Bush. After warming up with Outlaw’s debut dinner of slices of raw scallop served in the shell, salt cod with crab sauce and halibut with fennel bake, Tangrand and I wind up tipsily heading into her potting shed for a midnight plate-spinning lesson, clasping bowls of red wine and tripping over wires in an attempt to find the power switch. I silently thank the Norse gods that she’s in charge of ceramics rather than knife-making.
The next day I swap stone and clay for slate-tipped sea, crashing into clusters of black mussels wrapped around the pillars of the jetty while kayaking in the bay of the nearby village of Sørvågen. Lunch is located on an isolated island that we reach by RIB boat, bouncing across the current and scrambling over the spiky shoreline to a makeshift campsite where our chefs are cooking hot dogs over a fire, served airport junk-food style with pimped-up prawn-and-dill mayonnaise and crispy onions. I feel the last vestiges of my soft city lifestyle slipping away as I join British knifemakers Alex Pole and Ed Hunt to hammer out my own “Viking lady’s knife” in their temporary forge, striking the metal rod until it curves like a duplicitous, flirtatious smile. I wrap the blade in three pairs of hiking socks in order to get it home without slicing open my suitcase.
Continuing the theme of wild women, our evening entertainment comes courtesy of comedian-slash-cultural entomologist Nicholls. Having already been regaled with her stories of writing and performing an opera to chart the evolving life cycles of the moth versus the bat, as I snuggle up with a juniper-wood negroni I’m not surprised to hear her tales veer hilariously between bomb-sniffing bees, serenading mosquitoes and the time Alistair McGowan impersonated David Attenborough at her festival. At its core, though, her argument is about listening to the insect world as a way to revive our animal instincts and improve the connection between humanity and nature – a theme that reverberates through the retreat’s intuitive, improvisational approach to eating and the evening’s menu of salted duck legs, Lofoten summer-berry pudding and goat’s cheese from the local Aalan Gård farm.
This relationship between man and environment isn’t always so cosy, though, as I’m reminded the next morning when we board a boat and head back onto the maelstrom, the strongest current on the open sea, to try our hand at fishing. Initially I feel chipper as our skipper, Lars, teaches us how to haul up our catch using long spools of fishing line, but before long the dip and swell takes its toll. In the space of 15 minutes Johan goes from dexterously wielding three cameras to hunkering down in a pile of coats and staring out greenishly from his anorak, while I have to fix my gaze on the horizon to stop myself from joining the newly christened “barfing Bridget”. Deciding to leave the fishing to the professionals, I beat a wobbly retreat to the kitchen, where Outlaw treats us to a masterclass in making a delectable cod stew.
Our final night coincides with Midsummer’s Eve, the celebrations beginning with a performance by a Norwegian string quartet in the humble room above the kitchen. As the wind and the mountains beat against the windows and the strings soar, I feel like I’m on a train carriage rattling through the sky, insulated from the world outside alongside my fellow passengers. In Norway the tradition is to mark midsummer with a bonfire, so we troop outside and huddle around the flames in a scoop of rock drinking mugs of aquavit, caraway, raspberry and Lofoten tea. Tangrand has already singed off half her fringe nishing off her ceramics in a raku firing over the blaze – she’ll later fall into the water attempting to retrieve a bird’s feather that she tells me represents a guardian angel’s visit – and as Rasmussen’s teenage daughter threads together a wildflower crown, Nicholls reads out her poetic homage to “the 24-hour dawn chorus everywhere, an ecosystem teeming in harmony”.
Following Outlaw’s final feast of cured salmon, seafood risotto and grilled monkfish, the evening ends as all good dinner parties should – anarchically – with half our group following Rasmussen’s daughter in the midsummer ritual of jumping off the jetty into the sea. It’s a fitting conclusion to a week of immersing ourselves in the marrow of the moment, a madcap, marauding community at the edge of the world.
A four-night Kitchen On The Edge Of The World break costs £4250pp, including all activities, food and pairing drinks, but excluding flights.
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