A taste of the Far North

The third annual Smak Svalbard festival is one of Europe’s most interesting food festivals

Photo: Kanerva Karpo
Smak Svalbard in Longyearbyen is Europe’s most northernmost and arguably most unusual food festival.

Elizabeth Bourne
Longyearbyen, Norway

Have you ever wondered what seal tastes like? Or thought that eating smalahove would be cool? Or wanted to try the world’s most expensive bottled water? Then Smak Svalbard Festivalen (Taste Svalbard Festival) is for you. Started in 2017, Smak Svalbard is the big little festival that could. Highlighting both local specialties and traditional Norwegian cuisine, the festival attracted the British newspaper The Guardian’s attention in 2018 and was named one of Europe’s top 10 food festivals. Without a doubt, it is Europe’s most unusual food festival.

Photo: Kanerva Karpo
Longyearbyen’s fine dining restaurant, Gruvelageret, offers smalahove (boiled sheep’s head) cooked in the traditional way and served with potatoes.

In addition to restaurants pulling out all the stops, there are also arctic specialties. Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg serves locally caught seal, five different ways. Ben Vidmar’s Polar Permaculture serves Arctic tapas, small bites made with locally grown micro greens and vegetables. These are not your typical tapas! Svalbardi, the world’s most expensive bottled water, offers taste-testing so you can compare the flavor of pure, 5,000-year-old water collected from icebergs to the more ordinary water that comes from mountain streams. Longyearbyen’s fine dining restaurant, Gruvelageret, offers smalahove (boiled sheep’s head) cooked in the traditional way and served with potatoes.  If you eat the entire head, including the eyes, you get a prize! For those who like their food grilled over a fire, the local store hosts a free barbecue with local favorites, arctic reindeer and minke whale.

Photo: Kanerva Karpo
No leftovers—well, not quite…

There are also more traditional offerings. Champagne breakfasts. Whiskey tastings. King crab feasts. Ribbe. Pinekjøtt. As delicious and traditional as all these foods are, they aren’t what makes Smak Svalbard so special. What makes it special are the people. In additional to its Norwegian population, Svalbard is also home to people from over 50 countries. During the festival, a big tent is set up in the town center’s parking lot. Inside are residents of Svalbard from many countries cooking and selling specialties from their home culture. Pad Thai, Mexican tacos, American burgers, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, Chinese dumplings, Philippine curry. These are just a few of the homemade goodies on offer at this unique food festival.

Svalbard isn’t like the mainland, where there is a large variety of ingredients available. Here, what’s locally available inspires new combinations. Your egg rolls might be stuffed with minced reindeer. Those traditional coconut cookies might have a lingonberry filling. Fish is most likely locally caught arctic char, or cod, or Atlantic salmon. Maybe there are arctic mushrooms in your omelet, and a bit of seaweed in your salad. You never know what combinations the inventiveness of these amazing local cooks will come up with in their efforts to produce a memorable experience for their neighbors, and to show their pride in their country’s cuisine. 

The third annual Smak Svalbard festival was held Oct. 3, 2019. As it was last year, the experience was great and very popular. People crowded local restaurants and the community food tent all weekend. Plans are already in motion for the fourth festival for next October. This is a unique experience which, combined with the astonishing beauty of the late autumn light in the high arctic makes for an incredible weekend packed with memories and experiences you will never forget.

To learn more about Smak Svalbard, visit facebook.com/SmakSvalbard.

Elizabeth Philotera Bourne is an artist, photographer, and writer. Her work has been shown nationally in the United States and in Norway. Bourne’s short stories have been published in several genre magazines. She currently lives in Longyearbyen, Norway, where she is learning to snakke norsk, and where there are no trolls because the polar bears ate them. You can find her at www.philotera.com and on Instagram as @philotera.

This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.