In today’s world, we have almost forgotten that our entire Norwegian culture is based on life in the age-old farming, fishing and hunting communities.
In the year 1000, all people in Norway lived in sparsely populated communities and rural areas. In 1835, 90% of the population still did. Even at the end of the Second World War, the proportion of the people living in towns and cities roughly equalled that of the people living in the countryside. Many of us living in urban areas in Norway today, have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who grew up in smaller rural communities across the country. Communities that were – and who to a large extent still are – deeply rooted in the old farming traditions and way of life.
Subsistence economy – self-sufficiency and barter
In earlier times, each single farm unit provided what the people and domestic animals living there needed to survive. This ancient way of life is what is called a subsistence economy.
The very few necessities that the farm could not produce, its inhabitants would get by swapping their own products – or by providing their own labour. Money – even up to more modern times – was something that most people rarely had.
Historically, taxes were measured in produce – and paid for by handing over the farm’s own products – such as butter, barrels of grain, fish etc.
Nature’s own larder
Nature’s offerings were the main source of all life. If people and domestic animals were to survive the long and cold Scandinavian winter, then the people had to reap and collect whatever they could find – and they would have to develop good ways of storing the food: food for both humans and livestock.
The job of cultivating the soil and the gathering of food was a full-time job – all year round. All family members had to contribute from a very young age.
The people who were diligent and well prepared were the ones that rarely lacked what they needed to survive – even in years when little would grow.
Important knowledge was passed down from generation to generation
In the olden world, knowledge – and the ability to learn – was the most important property or skill a person could have. Back then, the majority of the population could neither read nor write. They did, however, know how to interpret and read nature around them – and how to prepare and store the food that they had cultivated and gathered.
These were skills that they had learned from their parents – which again had learned them from their parents. Thus, the knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. With each new link on the family chain, the treasure trove of knowledge grew bigger and bigger – helping the family moving forward and towards a better and more improved way of life.
In addition to making sure that there was enough food on the table, houses needed to be built and mended, necessary equipment had to be shaped and maintained – and the domestic animals had to be cared for.
If we go far enough back in time, there was neither doctors nor medicines. The people only had available to them what nature could provide, and the knowledge that had been accumulated through the centuries. Our ancestors had a vulnerable and at times a very hard existence. But they were also happy and contented people who enjoyed life. Just like the people of today.
The rhythm of life – adapted to the seasons
The old farming community had its own rhythm. This was a rhythm based on the landscape around them and the passing of the seasons. The working day had its designated time for work, food and rest.
Back then, there was no electric light and the many other mod cons that we take for granted today. In the performance of their daily chores, the people had to follow the availability of the daylight.
The following working day cycle comes from the farm Holstad in Ås, Akershus, Norway and is recorded in more recent times. Nonetheless, it gives some insight into how the working day would flow on a typical Norwegian farm – even in earlier times. On Holstad farm they used stabbursklokka – the storehouse bell – to call out to the labouring people when it was time for food and rest.
The workday began at 06:00. On Holstad, the bell was not used for calling the workers out in the morning. It was, however, used for calling the people back in from the stable and the cowshed for breakfast at 08:00. It was also used for calling the fieldworkers back in from the fields for dinner at 11.30 – and then calling for them to return to their work after dinner and the midday nap – between 13.00 and 13.30. Later, the bell tolled at 16:00 for «eftasvæl» – the afternoon meal – and finally to mark the end of the working day at 19.00.
In the evening, people would sit in front of the fire or under the oil lamp, doing their needlework or repairing various objects. And lucky was the household that had a great storyteller – because the storyteller was an important person in the old world. In century after century, the stories were told and handed down from generation to generation.
There was also time for celebration and fun
People in the olden days also set aside time for celebrations and fun. Large occasions and feasts, like weddings and other life events, were often held during håbolla – which in many places in Norway is the name used for the periods between the busy seasons of spring, summer and autumn. Or they would celebrate during the wintertime.
This was a completely natural choice and part of the overall rhythm of the year. In spring there would be hectic activity getting the soil ready and the seed planted in the ground. Then there was a more quiet period, håbolla. Thereafter came the haying period – before yet another period of relative quiet. All this leading straight to the important autumn period with the harvesting of both the cultivated land and nature’s more wildly growing offerings. The number one priority was to ensure that the storerooms were filled to the brim for the winter.
During the hectic periods, no one had any time spare to put on their fineries or to travel from farm to farm.
Why were the basic foods processed and refined?
Bread, butter, cheese, sour cream and cured ham are words that often produces many good thought-images in the mind of the average Norwegian person. Food traditions – and the emotional connection that we have to the traditional food – go back many, many centuries.
What today’s people normally do not think about – is why our ancestors started making butter and cheese. The answer is quite simple: basic foods – like milk and meat – were processed because it was important to be able to store the food over a longer period of time.
Cheese was made from the cow’s and goat’s milk – and could if necessary be stored for several years. The butter was churned from fresh or sour cream and could be stored longer when salt was added. Meat and fish were salted, smoked or dried so that it could be stored for a very long time. The Vikings brought with them such food on their many and long journeys – more than a thousand years ago.
Fresh meat was normally something eaten only in the autumn and at Christmas – during the slaughter period. Sometimes also during other parts of the year when an animal had to be slaughtered for various reasons – or the family had been out hunting.
Baking flatbread – flatbrød – and storing it was better than storing the actual flour. It is unclear how far back the tradition of making the Norwegian flatbrød goes, but the flatbread could be stored for many years and would often be found in tall stacks in the farm storehouses.
Recommended read: The old Norwegian farm – the storehouse – stabburet
The summer dairy and the outfields
In many other countries, the cultivated soil stretches for miles throughout a flat and accessible landscape. In large parts of Norway, the good soil is far less available and is often found in more rugged terrain. This meant that our Norwegian foremothers and forefathers had to utilise the landscape in a very different way, compared to our cousins in many other countries.
The infields was the most productive part of the land. This was where the farmer could grow the grain and other cultivated crops. The farm houses were often in close proximity to the infields. In many places, the farm also cultivated isolated land plots situated further out into the terrain.
The outfields is the word used for the remaining non-cultivated part of the land belonging to the farm – or the common land that the farm had the right to use for pasture and more.
The outfields were in earlier times an immensely important resource. A large proportion of the Norwegian farms had their own summer dairy in the outfields, sometimes located high up in the mountains. On the summer dairy pasture, the domestic animals would feed throughout the summer. The outfields would also be utilised for additional haymaking and the collection of moss and leaves to be used as winter feed for the farm animals. This feed would normally be transported back to the farm during the winter – or in early spring – using a horse and sleigh.
Recommended read: The old Norwegian farm – its land and surroundings
From the summer dairy milk, coming from the cows and the goats, the milkmaids – or seterbudeiene – would make butter and cheese and other dairy products. These products – in many places called budråtten – were brought back to the farm either by packhorse – kløvhest – or it was carried on a person’s back. Back on the farm it would be stored in the storehouses – stabburene – or in the cellars.
In the outfields, the people would also fish in the rivers and in the woodland and mountain lakes. And they would gather berries, herbs and hunt wild animals.
Recommended read: The old Norwegian farm – the tradition of summer pasture
The eternal cycle
Nature is built on a system where everything runs in cycles. Living beings are born and plants grow – they live and flourish – and then in the end, they wither and die. Our ancestors lived as a natural part of this cycle. They understood the flow of nature, its rules and restrictions.
We must never forget to listen to the ancestral voice – or be afraid of following their advice. Our ancestors were so much wiser than we in the modern world often give them credit for.
Read more about Norwegian history in Norwegian food history | the beginning
Main sources: «Vår gamle bondekultur 1» by Christopher Visted and Hilmar Stigum – J.W.Cappelens Forlag 1971. | «Matklokka» by Andreas Ropeid – Norsk etnologisk gransking, 1985.
Main photo: An old house near the Briksdal glacier | Copyright: Nikolai Sorokin – fotolia.