04/03/2014 03:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Art of Food and Rest Beneath the Northern Sun


When darkness fades in the North, those of us in the Middle Zones frequently twist our heads upward towards the 60th parallel: the ski slopes are still crisp and powdery while crocuses have popped up and the spring cod rush is in full force. I landed in Oslo on the last days before Daylight Saving Time, my first visit since the Vietnam War era when planeloads of young Americans found camaraderie with their Nordic fellow travelers and discovered the ecstasy of running naked through the birch woods under the Midnight Twilight from a wooden sauna cabins to leap headlong into an heart-stopping icy fjord lakes.

Oslo in those pre-North Sea petroleum days was the poor-guy's Scandinavia. Now it's the queen of the architectural, digital and culinary North -- and easily the most expensive -- which makes finding a place to rest your head and fill your belly no small challenge. The center with its calm yet frisky walking boulevard -- the Karl Johansgate -- up toward the royal palace is lined with perfectly acceptable and standardly sterile brand named hostelries. But a deeper descent into the internet listings led me to the most home-away-from-home hotel I've ever dreamed in -- the Carlton Guldsmeden, a hundred yards down the back slope from the palace toward the new waterfront.


The Guldsmeden mini-chain isn't Norwegian: it was started by a Danish couple in 1999 in Copenhagen and has altogether eight sites scattered across the northlands, France's Cote d'Azur, Britain -- and Bali. The Oslo Guldsmeden, opened in 2010, is five floors high with its own wet and dry wood-paneled sauna in the basement. Like most everywhere north of France, where I live, most everybody from cooks to clerks is as fluent in English, or Spanish, or German as in Norwegian. No one wears a suit or a tie: sweatshirts and jeans are the norm. Ask them where they come from -- be it Poland or Dar-es-Salaam -- and they'll tell you as much of their life stories as you care to know.

I had come to learn about Norway's world-famous Kanvas network of Kindergartens where games and tumble rooms and walks in the forests for four-year-olds are seen as the foundation for building a society legally and culturally committed to gender equality for women, men and everybody in between. Camilla, the Guldsmeden manager, it turned out, had two kids in a Kanvas kindergarten just a few blocks away.

Before heading out for two days surrounded by three-, four- and five-year-olds Camilla recommended I take the sturdy and complementary Norwegian breakfast -- loaves of grainy black and brown breads, deep bowls of self-serve yogurt with more grainy cereals than I could identify, slabs of ham, cheese and dry salami and four juices, the most exotic of which was made of spring elder-flowers. The coffee? Well, Oslo isn't Italy. (The same breakfast outside would have run 300 Krone, or $50.)

The Guldsmeden chain claims that 80-90 percent of its food and furnishings come from organic or eco-friendly sources as measured by Denmark's eco-evaluation agencies. That ranges from the copious use of food and stone surfaces to the recycled napkins imprinted with the slogan: "Love Food. Hate Waste."

By night the same dining hall is taken over by a Swedish eco-organic master chef, Mikael Svensson and his maître d' side-kick Daniel Onaisrael (mother a blond from Minsk, father from Dar-es-Salaam) and who served time in France to learn wines) is also fluent in three languages and functional in two or three more. They call the restaurant "Kontrast." The four-course menu isn't cheap; it runs at least 700 to 900 Danish Krone ($85-100), if you, as I did, started with the obligatory Aquavit and pickled herring on crème fraiche with paper-thin slices of Kohlrabi, followed by a filet of a Norwegian lake fish called Burbot served on a bed of wild garlic leaves and chick-weed, and that followed by a bright pink duck breast simmered slowly in a sou-vide (vacuum sack) pouch for an hour and quickly crisped on the grill alongside fermented black beans and a malt reduction. No duck had ever flown to finer final destiny. Last came another obligatory treat: a cloud berry tart with sweet brown cheese sauce.

Gathering of the wild Norwegian greens and weeds is directed by an octogenarian lady who's a friend of Chef Svensson's.

If it all sounds painfully indulgent, it is, not least because Mikael the cook, Daniel the Maitre d' and whoever's on night shift make it a point to come chat (if you wish) about what's brought you to their corner of the planet, what brought them there and when you'll be returning.

(A short tram ride the next morning up into the forest performs wonders for clearing out the after effects to too much Aquavit. A dash from a roasting hot sauna cabin into a crystal fjord lake works even better. Don't be afraid.)


The Hotel Sauna