Monday, March 31, 2014

Chasing the Aurora Borealis & chunky Norwegian soup

WOW, WHAT AN ADVENTURE THIS WAS!  It may not have been the furthest, the most exotic, or the most popular travel destination I’ve ever been to.  But it sure was like nothing else – simply pure magic! 

In March, we took a trip past the Arctic Circle to the Norwegian city of Tromsø (aka: Paris of the North), to chase the Aurora Borealis (aka: Northern Lights).  Yes, in March – the month when “normal people” start welcoming Spring, celebrate the melting of the grey-ish slush once known as snow, and enjoy birds chirping, flowers blooming and sun shining (after all: they’ve been waiting for this for so long!).  Yep, that’s exactly when we went North.  North, where there is no melting, chirping or blooming, but instead a freezing, in-your-face reminder that in March Queen Winter still rules over large parts of Europe.
And I mean it when I say in-your-face.  The moment we opened the door of the Tromsø airport, we were hit by a snowstorm so dense, that we were instantly converted into snowmen, struggling to move in the strong icy breeze.  I was freezing to death and thinking to myself: who the hell wants to come here when there are tons of other, perfectly habitable destinations?!

Still, we came here with a purpose (plus, let’s be honest, nobody likes a wuss), so we got our act together, and on the very same evening went for a night walk in the blizzard.  Yep, two people, in complete darkness, in the wilderness, in a snowstorm, wearing… ah I think I need a new sentence to describe all the things we were wearing.  Starting with woolen thermal underwear (long-sleeve T-shirt & leggings), through layers of fleece jumpers, warm pants, ski pants on top, two pairs of woolen socks, a wind & water-proof jacket, ski goggles, ski scarf, hat, hood, two pairs of gloves, and sturdy winter boots.  

On top, the tourist office gave us (compulsory) double-padded overalls (!), Nordic walking poles, snow shoes (you know, these things looking like mini rackets) and head torch lights.  Pffff - it was a lot of stuff!  But boy was I happy to be wearing all of this!  Because this actually made walking in the snow blizzard a lot of fun!  We felt like first explorers of rough polar territories, like real adventurers in contact with the raw and harsh outdoors.  It was like nothing else!  And, believe me, hot tea honestly never tasted as good, as when we came back from this trip, and were served tea and cake near a cosy fireplace in a Norwegian hut!

The main attraction of the trip was without a doubt the sighting of Aurora Borealis!  This is a spectacular natural phenomenon, in a nutshell caused by clashed of solar winds and Earth's atmosphere.  For years, however, people believed these are spirits of the dead gathering in the sky in a majestic dance of colors, waves and flows.  and when you actually see the phenomenon, this non-scientific explanation looks very believable.

It is not so easy to spot the Northern Lights.  First, they are only visible in Tromsø during a few months.  They also depend in the solar activity - the more active the explosions on the Sun, the more spectacular effects you get.  Finally, you need a clear sky to be able to see anything at all - which is not easy during Winter months.  Consequently, just sitting and waiting for the light show is not he best solution.  It's best to go on a so-called "Aurora hunt", where people with proper meteorological equipment can tell where there is a clear sky and also monitor solar activity.

Our Aurora hunt took us close to the Finish border, where we set out camp in the middle of nowhere.  And then we waited and waited for hours...  It was around -20°C and despite all the layers we were wearing, it started getting very cold after a few hours.  We saw the Northern Lights, but because of low solar activity the effects were at first not spectacular - it looked more like a green glow or Batman sign ;)  But then suddenly, when our hope started fading, the show started.  A fascinating performance of dynamic, quickly changing green waves and shapes.  As breathtaking as Nature can get:) 

Tromsø itself is a charming little town, which has everything you need at a winter resort.  It has many cute shops, a pretty harbor, and consists of tons of colorful small houses, playfully scattered among the white mountain hills and plains.  Our hotel was located in the center of the city, near the harbor, and served the most amazing breakfast buffet I've ever seen.  With plenty of healthy/bio versions of muesli and dried fruit, delicious dark bread and an impressive selection of smoked fish.  The cold smoked salmon (see below) is so different in taste from the "popular" hot smoked salmon is honestly the best tasting smoked fish in the world.  

Tromsø also has plenty of restaurants, some traditional, some international.  One of the most traditional dishes we had was randier (see below), which is served medium rare with a cranberry sauce.

There are so many fun things to do up North!  One of the most characteristic activities of the Polar Circle region, are sleigh dog rides!  It's SO MUCH FUN!  The huskies are just adorable and very well trained.  You can lead your own sleigh without much effort, and the dogs follow the instructions flawlessly.  That is unless they are up for some frolicking in the snow with the other dogs, in which case you must remind them to get back into the line.  But that's just their happy, friendly nature that surfaces - so you really can't blame them (but feel like playing with them yourself ;-) ).  What is also so great about dog sleigh rides is also the close contact with nature.  You don't hear any motors, smell any polluted fumes, but just gracefully glide through the white snow dessert - magical.

Having said that, it's also a lot of fun to do the snow jet ski.  For the speed, snow fun, and possibility to cover longer distances and see so many breathtaking sights.  We went jet skiing in the Lyngen Alps - and the views were just spectacular.  A vast mountain range covered with a blanket of soft, fluffy snow - virgin white and untouched.  All in glorious sunshine, so strongly reflected in the snow, you really needed sunglasses to be able to see.

This fish soup is really delicious and super healthy!  I never would have guessed fish soup can be that good!  We had it during our Aurora hunting night, while standing around a big fireplace in the middle of nowhere.  It tasted phenomenal - especially in the biting cold of the outdoors.  We also had it a few more times, and it seems a popular dish up North. Nonetheless, I couldn't find a recipe online that would mirror what we had in Norway.  So I just improvised, and the result is exactly as I wanted!

Unlike in many fish soups, there is no cream added here.  Nonetheless, the soup is very thick, and actually more of a stew with big delicious chunks of vegetables and fish.  The tomato base gives it a certain sweetness and acidity, which goes particularly well with the meaty fish and big chunks of potato.  I added quite a few chili peppers to the soup (with pips included), which also made it very spicy.  If you prefer milder flavors, you can skip the chili, or add less and remove the pips (almost all of the heat comes from the pips, so if you get rid of them the soup will be much milder).

You can play around with the ingredients a little bit - adding you favorite veggies or removing others.  I think this combination is really great though, with a great diversity of flavors and textures.  I hope the soup will give you a taste of Norway, and inspire to explore its wild glorious beauty!


  • 400 g white fish fillet (cod, halibut or any meaty white fish), cut in large chunks
  • 4 medium/small potatoes, cut in quarters
  • 3 carrots, cut in large chunky slices
  • 1 fennel bulb, diced
  • 1 red pepper, cut in chunky pieces
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 baby cauliflowers (or approx. 1/3 of a full size cauliflower), cut in large chunks
  • 1 can of peeled tomatoes
  • 500 g of tomato puree
  • 2 chili peppers, finely chopped (optional) (I added around 6-7 and the soup was SUPER HOT!)
  • 200 ml of good quality, liquid fish stock
  • olive oil
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 allspice berries
  • salt / pepper
  • boiling water
  • lots of fresh parsley, chopped


[The overall cooking time depends on the size of your veg & fish.  You want the ingredients to be cooked but not overcooked - the veg needs to stay firm, and the fish can't get rubbery.  Check the veg during cooking, and adjust cooking time accordingly].
  • Sauté the onions, garlic and chili peppers with some olive oil in a big non-stick soup pan, for about 4-5 minutes.
  • Add all the chopped vegetables except for the cauliflower.  Stir well, then add the tomatoes, tomato puree, fish stock and boiling water, enough to coat the vegetables with 2-3 cm liquid.  Add the bay leaves and all spice, and season to taste.  Cover with a lid and let simmer (small/medium heat) for approx. 20 minutes.
  • Add the cauliflower and let simmer for another 5-10 minutes.
  • Finally add the fish, and cook for 5-7 more minutes until cooked through, but not overcooked.
  • Serve with plenty of fresh parsley, and buttered bread.

Bon appetit!

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