(CNN)“We have products, history here that you don’t find anywhere else in the world,” says Esben Holmboe Bang, the Danish head chef of Oslo’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant Maaemo.
“For me it was mind-blowing. I saw the way they preserved fish, meat and I just thought I’ve never seen this before.”
Norway’s distinctive cuisine has been shaped by its 100,000-kilometer coastline, by its long winters and brief summers, by the forests that cover a third of its surface, and by the mountains that cut west off from east.
Here are 18 of Norway’s greatest — and strangest — specialties.
“You have to try it once in your life. This is amazing thing,” says Eirik Braek, owner of Oslo deli Fenaknoken, holding up a whole sheep’s head.
Fenaknoken is an Aladdin’s cave of cured, dried and salted delicacies, with hams strung from the ceiling like chandeliers, and Braek is a charming and enthusiastic host, giving all visitors to his shop a tasting tour of Norwegian food history.
Smalahove — literally sheep’s head — is a Christmas treat in Western Norway.
“You start with the eyes,” says Braek, because the fatty areas taste better warm. “This one you have to serve hot.”
2. Great Scallop
“The sea is something we live off now and it’s something that we lived on for centuries,” says Holmboe Bang. “There’s a strong belonging to the sea.”
The cold waters mean seafood takes longer to grow, making the flesh is extra plump and tender.
In the Norway episode of “Culinary Journeys,” Holmboe Bang and Maaemo’s diver Roderick Sloan feast on “salty, intensely sweet” Great Scallops, served in their shell with reindeer moss and juniper.
People love fish so much, says Braek, that they’ll drink Omega 3 at Christmas to line their stomachs pre-revelry: “Just a small scoop. You can have more alcohol, maybe.”
3. Mahogany clam
The world’s oldest animal ever is said to be a sprightly little bivalve mollusk by the name of Ming, who was dredged off the coast of Iceland in 2006 and estimated to be 507 years old.
The ones found off Norway’s northern coast will usually have been chilling in the Arctic depths for 150 to 200 years.
Says Roderick Sloan: “My job is like going to the moon every day.
“When I’m on the bottom, I only have two sounds: the sound of my heart and the sound of my breath.”
4. Dried everything
“In Norway we dry everything, because we have to,” says Braek. “We did this to survive in the future. We salted and dried things.”
Holmboe Bang agrees.
Fermenting, pickling, salting, curing, smoking: “It’s all about trying to prolong summer, it’s about making the taste of summer last.
“We’ve developed these intensely special, completely different flavor profile than the produce has in the summer, but that’s for us the taste of winter.”
“People did this for thousands of years,” he adds.
“When you think about the way people had to survive, you had to preserve your fish, you had to think ‘I have to stock up my larder for the winter, otherwise me and my family are going to die’… We don’t have that mentality any more.
“I feel like now we live in a society where everything is available all the time, and that’s a blessing and a curse.”
Klippfisk — literally “cliff fish” — is dried and salted cod, in a tradition dating back to the 17th century.
In the “Culinary Journeys” video above, Holmboe Bang is schooled in the method by Nordskot expert Erling Heckneby.
6. Cod tongues
The season for fresh fish is January to April, says Braek.
Skrei — or cod — is one of Norway’s greatest exports but one specialty that hasn’t been such a hit abroad is cod tongue.
The cut is less the actual tongue than the underside of the cod chin, should you find “cod chin” sounds more appealing.
The best way to wrap your lips round some cod tongue is to toss them in seasoned flour and fry them in butter.
Gamalost means “old cheese” — and this is one that was actually eaten by Vikings.
It’s a hard, crumbly brownish-yellow cheese with a sharp, intense flavor and a pungent scent to match.
“Some people love it, some people hate it,” says Braek.
Those who really love it can join the annual Gamalost Festival held in Vik in May.
“This cheese we can keep forever. This never gets old,” adds Braek, explaining that it was a Norwegian staple in the days before refrigeration.
Production is very labor-intensive, so it’s rare to find gamalost for sale outside Norway.
Much easier to find than gamalost, brunost is the sweet-savory brown cheese that delights Norwegians and surprises foreigners.
It’s a goat’s cheese made from caramelized whey — giving it a sharp, sweet-sour dulce de leche taste — and its fat and sugar content is such that a truck of the stuff burnt for five days when it caught fire in a Norwegian tunnel in 2013.
Norwegians eat it on toast, with crispbread, with jam and at breakfast — though any meal will do.
A classic combo is sliced brunost on top of one of Norway’s sweetly heart-shaped waffles. They’re softer and more pliable than the Belgian variety, making them easier to fold in the hand.
At Christmas they’re eaten on toasted buttered julecake — a festive cake flavored with cardamom and dotted with fruit and candied peel.
9. Reindeer and elk
Forget the Pepsi Challenge — visitors to Fenaknoken can sample dried elk and dried reindeer side by side.
“Elk is like a dry, more wild taste,” says Braek. Reindeer is a “much smaller animal so it’s much sweeter.”
Reindeer moss — so called because reindeer eat it — is a lichen found in Arctic tundra. “It’s very special to Norway,” explains Sloan. “This is where the reindeer get all their flavor from.”
It’s also sometimes used in the making of akvavit, the famous Scandinavian spirit.
“This is a map of Norway,” explains Braek, holding a vacuum-packed leg of lamb and pointing out the west coast, where cuisine was influenced by the shipping trade and mixing cultures, and the isolated mountain-bound east.
“At Christmas I have about 1.5 tonnes of lamb ribs” hanging from the roof of the shop, he says, a welcome sight for homesick Norwegians returning home for the festive season.
“I have people stand here and cry. ‘I’m home!'”
Pinnejott — “stick meat” — is a festive dish of salted and dried lamb or mutton ribs, typical to the west and north.
The national dish, however is farikal, a lamb and cabbage casserole traditionally eaten in fall.
Norway has a Willy Wonka-esque inventory of evocative berry names: cloudberries, crowberries … but sadly no snozzberries.
The ethereal cloudberry is golden-yellow and only found in the wild. Its rarity earns it the nickname Arctic gold.
They have a tart appleish flavor and are often made into jam. “If you find any, don’t tell anyone where you find them,” says Braek.
Crowberry is a black cold-climate berry found in northern Europe, Alaska, Canada, Greenland and beyond.
If a gelatinous mix of dried fish and lye doesn’t sound appealing, you might not be alone.
When we visited the world’s only Lutefisk Museum, in Norway’s “Christmas town” of Drobok, on a sunny day in May the entire place was empty — a piscine Marie Celeste with no staff, no customers, but one forlorn pile of children’s letters to Santa.
Lutefisk is a festive specialty, made by air-drying fish, reconstituting it by soaking it in cold water for a week, then soaking it in caustic lye soda for two days.
Then, to get rid of the poisonous lye, it’s soaked in water for another couple of days.
It’s not eaten in the summertime, but out of season visitors can console themselves with a light and frothy fiskesuppe (fish soup) in the cherry blossom-shaded courtyard of the Skipperstuen restaurant opposite the Museum and Aquarium, overlooking the Oslofjord.
13. Salty liquorice
Yes, the Norwegians like salting everything so much, they even do it to their candy.
The controversial mouth-puckering treat is wildly popular in the Nordic countries and widely reviled elsewhere.
It’s an acquired taste, but if you like your aniseed strong, and your gustatory receptors tingling in tandem, it might just be the candy for you.
Torrfisk, or stockfish, is unsalted air-dried fish, usually cod.
It’s been “made in Norway for, people say, about 1,000 years,” says Braek.
It’s mentioned in the 13th century Icelandic work “Egil’s Saga,” when a chieftain ships stockfish from Norway to Britain in 875 AD.
As such, it was Norway’s biggest export for centuries.
Rakfisk is salted, fermented trout, and it packs a pungent — and delicious — punch.
It’s usually fermented for two to three months, but it can be up to a year.
It’s often eaten with flatbrod (Norwegian flat bread) or lefse (potato bread), onions and sour cream.
16. King Crab
Like the sound of a King Crab safari?
A number of tour operators offer trips to Kirkenes, on the border with Russia, to hunt the Arctic King Crab between the months of December and April.
The mighty crustaceans can grow to a leg span of 1.8 meters.
17. Seagull eggs
Seagulls are arguably the most thuggish of seabirds, raised — in the UK, at least — on a diet of ketchup, French fries and stolen sandwiches.
But in late April or early May in northern Norway, locals like to eat hard-boiled seagulls’ eggs washed down with a pilsner beer from Tromso’s Mack’s brewery.
We don’t recommend you attempt to harvest any yourself — to protect the species, but also to protect yourself. Those gulls can be pretty handy when it comes to a fight.
Norway is one of only three countries still involved in the controversial practice of whaling, alongside Japan and Iceland.
For those who can stomach it, whale meat — or hvalkjott — is widely available and often marketed at curious tourists.
“I’ve tried whale and reindeer,” says Jen, a Canadian on a one-woman tour of Norway.
“Whale’s really good. I’m from the east coast, so we have a lot of fish but we don’t do whaling.”
As whales are mammals rather than fish, the taste is similar to a gamey meat such as venison.