Norwegian Baked refines knekkebrød
Not a half-baked idea
Romantically described as the bread of Norwegian shepherds, peasants, and Vikings in Wikipedia, flatbrød has become a staple of the entire Scandinavian populace. Flatbrød has humble and practical beginnings, using grains that could be easily cultivated in a cold climate and stored for long periods of time. Food needed to be available for long journeys by sea and to nourish those on land during harsh weather. Today, flatbrød continues to be part of a Scandinavian diet, especially for breakfast and lunch.
One hearty type of flatbrød, originally created in Norway, is knekkebrød, which requires few ingredients—grain (usually rye), seeds, water, and salt. Of course, variations have arisen, such as adding honey for sweetness. But it is amazing how little this food has changed in a millennium and a half.
I was delighted to hear that Hedvig Bourbon, who emigrated from Oslo, is baking knekkebrød in Brooklyn under the company name Norwegian Baked. She rents and shares an industrial kitchen space in Sunset Park with a granola maker. How apropos that this is happening in old Bay Ridge, once the heart of the Norwegian community, just a stone’s throw from Brooklyn’s historic harbor where Nordic seamen dominated.
“My childhood was special growing up in Oslo,” Bourbon told me. “It is a city, but 50 minutes from town you are in nature—Frogner Park, Holmenkollen, hiking in summer, swimming in the lakes, cross-country skiing every weekend. You bring your Kvikk Lunsj, oranges, and get hot chocolate. That was family time. You have a very healthy life and healthy family life. I try to create it for my kids here.”
She left her pleasant life in Norway to study media and communications at the University of San Francisco in the late 1990s. While studying, two friends on the other coast asked her to come to New York for a visit. As a foreign student, she had a one-year work visa and remained east working for McCann-Erickson, an advertising agency. It was in this city that she also met her now-husband, Jean, a photographer from France.
According to Bourbon, “I never planned on being in America and making a life in America. My father worked here when I was little. I lived here from ages 1 to 8. Now, it is so easy to fly back and forth. Norway doesn’t seem so far away. I have three kids and my kids were born here. So they are American, but also Norwegian and French.”
The family eventually settled in Brooklyn, where it was “less hectic and there was more space. You can see the sun, hear the birds. From the moment we came here we have been happy. Now we are established here. This is our life,” Bourbon ruminated.
Bourbon and her family also spend time in Norway. On one summer visit, she realized that baking your own bread had become a trend. “My aunt was making knekkebrød. It was so delicious that I got completely hooked. I came home to Brooklyn and made it for my family and friends. Everyone loved it.”
Bourbon had become a stay-at-home mom and began to think about trying something entrepreneurial, and this evolved into trying to bake knekkebrød on a larger scale. She had the courage—or audacity—to try to improve a Norwegian mainstay.
“I was experimenting and trying to make a perfect recipe,” she explained. “I tried some with olive oil and friends said it was very nice. I started adding more sunflower and pumpkin seeds. My friends encouraged me. They gave me contacts of others who had started a business. People were so open.”
She had now perfected her recipe. The next challenge was how to market her product. She hustled. “I made a bag of samples and picked up several different cheese stores in Brooklyn. They loved it. They ordered more. I then went into Manhattan and then slowly more and more stores bought.”
Today, close to 50 stores carry her bread. Distribution is a family affair, as her husband pitches in to do a lot of the deliveries. Her business has grown from her being the solo baker to having two staff, and she has nearly tripled her baking time.
Food has the capacity to conjure the best childhood memories. “When you deal with food, people are so generous,” said Bourbon.
She recounted a story when a customer had sent some of her bread to a sibling. The brother contacted her. “They had eaten that in Sunset Park as kids. They were so poor. He gave me a whole history of Sunset Park. It was so fun to hear and to learn.”
I asked Bourbon whether her knekkebrød was traditional or new. “The traditional is with the rye, flour and oats,” she said. “What is new is that it is very generously packed with pumpkin, sunflower, flax, and sesame seeds. I also put olive oil in it. It makes it less dry.” She offers two types: one classic, the other sprinkled with sea salt flakes. She has been working on more flavors, but they are still being perfected.
Opening a food business is not easy. “I didn’t realize how hard it is physically to be a baker,” Bourbon told me. “Lifting 100 heavy trays a day, baking 10 trays at a time. The other challenge is having three children and starting your own business. But I am really lucky because I have an amazing partner in my husband, Jean. So we manage this together. It’s been so fun and inspiring.”
The Nordic Food Movement is in full swing in New York City, where Claus Meyer has a wide reach.
“I am definitely part of the movement of Nordic tradition being made here locally and shared with everyone,” Bourbon said. “My knekkebrød is being sold at Claus Meyer’s place in Grand Central.”
How big can the knekkebrød business get? Bourbon explained the challenge: “How do you remain artisanal and not compromise on a nutritious and healthy, 100 percent organic product?” But she is not backing down from that problem, as her future goal is to build her own wholesale industrial space, a crisp bread bakery.
Most importantly, how does Norwegian Baked knekkebrød taste? Hearty and crunchy, but smooth and easy on the bite. A secondary pleasure is the seeds that linger on the palate. I first tried them plain. Delicious. I then tried them with butter, and lastly with butter and a Polish Swiss-like cheese. They did not disappoint. I could also imagine them paired with flavors from a totally different part of the world, the Middle East, spreading them with baba ghanoush or hummus.
If you are interested in purchasing a healthy, organic, and delicious food, Norwegian Baked knekkebrød can be found in about 50 stores around the New York area. There is a list on the website, www.norwegianbaked.com. It is also available through Etsy.
This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.