Stavanger may be feeling the burn from the collapse of the oil boom but Norway’s richest city has turned its attention to other natural bounties, says Olivia Palamountain
Stavanger is on the south-west coast of Norway. Flights from the UK take around 2 hours and the time is one hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the krone. In June, the average high temperature is 16C and the average low is 10C.
Norwegian offers up to seven direct flights per week to Stavanger Sola from London Gatwick from £29.90 one way. norwegian.com/uk
SAS operates flights from London Heathrow to Stavanger three times a week, from £59 one way. flysas.com
Region Stavanger is the official website. It contains all the key information you need to book your trip. regionstavanger-ryfylke.com
Visit Norway also has tips for planning a visit. visitnorway.com
Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen (Orenda Books, £8.99) is classic Nordic noir. Set on the Norwegian coast, it follows Det Varg Veum as he investigates the 25-year-old case of a missing girl.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Stavanger, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 0.3 tonnes CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £2.22.
Stavanger never expected to strike it rich. This sleepy city on Norway’s south-west coast was once a working-class port that was economically dependent on the sea. Home to some 50 fish processing factories, it was ‘glamorously’ known as the ‘canned capital of Norway’. Local catch of the day used to mean shrimp, herring, sprats, lobster and crab. But after a routine sea drill struck oil in the North Sea off Stavanger’s coast in 1969, black gold fast became the new currency. The subsequent decades saw this community flourish to become Norway’s richest city, with soaring Brent crude oil prices peaking at more than $120 per barrel in 2011. The rest of the country looked on in disbelief as supercars, lavish spending and outrageous antics came to redefine this once-humble city.
Then the market nosedived. Stavanger-based Norwegian energy giant Statoil recorded a net loss of £338million in 2015, axing thousands of jobs and slashing salaries in the process. The country suffered, with the Stavanger region hit the hardest.
However, on a warm Saturday evening on Ovre Holmegaten – a cobbled street in the old town – there’s no hint of this trauma. Thanks to a rainbow makeover by local artist Craig Flanagan, the traditional wooden properties that line the street sing with colour. The mood is buoyant and buzzing with potential as people spill out of bars and restaurants, lured by the smell of the sea and hookah pipes from the Efendi Tea and Coffee House. How are locals dealing with the current climate? ‘Yes, the atmosphere has changed,’ one man tells me. ‘You can feel it at work. You notice it in the traffic on the way to work – some days there’s none at all. However, it’s not a crisis. It’s not a depression. A correction, perhaps. Money is still being made.’ Indeed, the city has swung full circle and is returning to its roots as a seafaring community, with fishing now being touted as ‘the new oil’.
Over in neighbouring Egersund, I’m welcoming the trawler Mersey as she returns from a two-week spell at sea. She squeaks and groans with her load, a sombre hymn for thousands of dead fish, harmonised by frenzied gulls circling and squawking overhead. Giant spools reeled with rope as thick as forearms are readied to hoist huge crates packed full with ice and fish on to the dock.
‘It has been an OK trip,’ says ship chef Erik Kalvenes, referring to the 500-ton haul of mackerel and herring, considering the Mersey is capable of gathering up to 10,000 tons, I see his point. However, the waters between the UK and Norway are super-rich in stocks and Kalvenes says the industry is thriving, with annual salaries of £100,000-plus not unheard of. But life at sea comes at a price and he admits to the dangers. ‘We get waves so huge that the ship disappears completely. You have to stay indoors or you’ll never be seen again.’
So whereabouts in Stavanger will a catch such as this end up? The best way to appreciate seafood of such high calibre is in its most natural state, making sushi the perfect showcase. Sabi Omakase, a tiny nine-seat restaurant, was opened by chef Roger Asakil Joya in 2015 and was awarded its first Michelin star in 2016.
It offers one set menu: 18 courses of omakase (dishes selected by the chef) inspired by traditional Edomai cuisine (sushi from Edo Bay or Tokyo Bay). It’s been rehashed by Roger as Normai, fusing Japanese techniques with Norwegian fish. Gleaming fillets – tuna, salmon, gurnard – are displayed in a bamboo box as Roger talks us through his treasures. The space is soothing and calm, decorated with a lone bonsai tree.
‘Eating with your fingers shows that you trust the chef,’ Roger says, deftly thumbing parcels of rice before laying a fat slice of fish over each one and placing it directly on to the surface in front of me.
It’s the details that take this sushi to another level: a fine slice of tomato and physalis on a piece of gurnard appear innocuous but deliver a lick of natural acidity and sweetness to the mouthful. Langoustine with yuzu is another triumph, as is the inspired prawn gunkan, wrapped in a fine kombu gelée (jelly) instead of the traditional nori seaweed. This chef has a black belt in sushi: it’s some of the best I’ve eaten. ‘I’ve got 35 years’ experience,’ he tells me, adding with endearing humility ‘but if I want to be a master I’ll need 35 more.’ With the menu at Sabi Omakase costing an indulgent £125, it’s clear there’s still a market in Stavanger for high-end restaurants.
An appetite for fine dining is best expressed at two-star Michelin RE-NAA Studio. Here the focus is on the finest products from this fertile and generous region: the sea, fjords, land, forests and mountains, all playfully delivered and inspired by nature. Italian-Norwegian chef-owner Sven Erik Renaa, is a warm, jovial host. He’s so passionate about the provenance of his ingredients that he invites me to meet him at one of his supplier’s smallholdings. Gydas Jordepler (earth apple) belongs to self-taught farming enthusiast Sigurd Strand Pedersen. It’s an enchanted spot overlooking the sea, with a small field, orchard and a low-slung house that was moved to its current location back in 1750, its roof covered in a rich blanket of moss and grasses. In a tiny area, Sigurd grows heritage and specialist varieties of crops such as potatoes, asparagus, plums and turnips. The eccentric twist? He ploughs the traditional way with a horse and cart.
While Sven Erik is a champion of this connection to the past, he is constantly pioneering new ground. ‘I never say I follow trends but to be a creative chef you have to evolve,’ he tells me. He owns a further two premises: Matbaren, a hip Nordic bistro with an open kitchen, neon artwork and retro soundtrack, and Xpress, a bakery and café offering lunch and artisan pizzas from a wood-fired oven.
Studio and Matbaren occupy the same space in the old town, a former warehouse with a magnificent central conservatory where Studio guests are served pre-dinner drinks.
After a busy lunch service at Matbaren, the chefs are waiting outside on the street for a special delivery. Farmer Frode Ljosdal arrives in style. Dressed in a black vest and jeans, he looks like a missing member of The Rolling Stones, wiry and weathered, with tattoos and long hair tied back in a bun. Frode grew up in Stavanger but now lives on the tiny island of Brimse, a rocky outcrop that has been farmed for at least 2,000 years. Accessible only by sea, there are no cars or roads so Frode uses a tractor to transport his crops to his boat then ferries them to the mainland.
‘I’m a born collector,’ he says, rummaging through the colourful vegetables in his van. Frode has been fishing, hunting and foraging for the season’s finest produce since childhood. And his relationships with chefs is collaborative. ‘Part of the service I provide is to grow specialised sizes required by restaurants, so they dictate the crop,’ he says. With such an exclusive harvest, it’s unsurprising that these crops are destined for only the best kitchens in Stavanger, Oslo and Bergen.
The region has a microclimate and the island of Finnøy is famous for its tomato production, as well as game – deer and wild sheep – and lamb. At the medieval Utstein Abbey in Rennesøy, the Klostergarden farm has been in the Schanche Rettedal family for 11 generations. It’s one of the largest sheep breeders in Norway and the lamb holds a national distinction award. Gentle hills roll down into the sea and you can see as far as Kvitsøy, an island known for its lobster. This area is protected as part of a unique Norwegian landscape, joining another regional treasure, the Jæren National Tourist Route. One of only 18 scenic drives in Norway recognised for outstanding natural beauty, the 41km stretch of road between Ogna and Bore offers open skies, wide horizons and endless ocean. Jæren is an unexpected destination for surfers, with miles of beaches and sand dunes, broken only by boulders and rivers full of salmon.
While much of Norway is renowned for its dramatic scenery of soaring mountains and deep blue fjords, Rogaland has a more subtle, agricultural charm. The exception to this is Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), a steep granite cliff with an unusual 25sq m flat top that looms 604m above Lysefjorden. The perfect viewing platform, it’s highly likely that you’ll catch daredevils dangling their legs over the edge in order to get the ultimate selfie.
Hikers starting the challenging two-hour hike to the summit are in for a surprise when they see Preikestolen Fjellstue Mountain Lodge. Located at the start of the trail, it offers a variety of accommodation and food with a view over Lake Refsvatnet. It serves a snack menu as well as more sophisticated dishes that highlight the best of the local produce. A plate of rich wild sheep from the small islands around the city is knockout, as is the buttery turbot meunière with mushrooms and capers, washed down with a cider brewed in apple-mad Hardanger.
‘Everyone in Hardanger makes cider,’ says chef Morten Sjøvik, smiling. ‘Some of them just like to get drunk.’ The deliciously crisp brew we’re drinking was made by a biochemist in his spare time.
There seems to be a thriving cottage industry for food and drink in Stavanger, with many residents making small-batch gourmet products. Professional patissier Bo Jensen makes Lille Aske, an award-winning goat’s cheese, Blåne Ice Cream comes from a tiny herd of eight cattle owned by Ase Bente, and then there’s tomato everything from the residents of Finnøy, including an excellent jam. Mathallen, a concept space stocking only local goods, was the place to find all of these delicious things. Sadly it has recently closed, joining the long list of oil collapse casualties but some local flavours can still be found at the Ostehuset deli and bakery.
One place that is here to stay is Fisketorget, a restaurant and fishmonger on the old town’s harbour. A local institution, it’s a bright and breezy hub where people gather to assess the day’s catch or settle in for traditional dishes with a modern twist. On my visit, a group of chic elderly women are swapping gossip over steaming bowls of its famous fish soup while, outside, a group of lads dip rods into the sea in front of the town’s handsome 17th- and 18th-century timber buildings. It will take more than economic adversity to disrupt this happy snapshot of life in Stavanger, where some things will never change and the joys of simple pleasures are being discovered once more.
Where to Stay
Kronen Gaard Hotell A member of De Historiske, Norway’s historic hotels association, this Swiss-style property was built in 1898 and once hosted members of the Norwegian royal family. Doubles from £79. Lutsiveien 70, Sandnes, 00 47 51 608 300, kronen-gaard.no
Myhregaarden Hotel Boutique operation in the city centre offering jolly suites and roomy apartments for longer visits. Doubles from £88. Nygaten 24, 00 47 51 868 000, myhregaardenhotel.no
Scandic Stavanger City Contemporary business accommodation with stylish rooms and an impressive breakfast buffet. Doubles from £129. Reidar Berges Gate 7, 00 47 21 615 200, scandichotels.no
Sola Strand Hotel Beachfront hotel and spa that’s much more appealing than its airport location suggests. Doubles from £110. Axel Lundsveg 27, Sola, 00 47 51 943 000, en.sola-strandhotel.no
Thon Hotel Maritim Corporate city offering that ticks all the boxes for a simple night’s stay in the centre of town. Doubles from £93. Kongsgata 32, 00 47 51 850 500, thonhotels.no
Where to Eat
Prices are per person for three courses with wine, unless otherwise stated.
Bakernes Paradis Homemade food, coffee and cake at a charming lakeside location by Høgsfjord. From £82. Sandnes, 00 47 51 608 300, bakernesparadis.no
De gamle Stuene at Kronen Gaard Hotel Traditional restaurant serving an excellent buffet lunch. From £74. Lutsiveien 70, Sandnes, 00 47 51 608 300, kronen-gaard.no
Fish & Cow Buzzing brasserie with all-day dining and steaks on the grill. From £81. Skagen 3, 00 47 51 505 050, fishandcow.no
Fisketorget Stavanger institution comprising a restaurant and fishmonger. The fish soup is legendary. From £65. Strandkaien 37, 00 47 51 527 350, fisketorget-stavanger.no
Ostehuset Excellent café, deli and bakery run by a husband-and-wife team. From £20, excluding wine. Ryfylkegata 30, 00 47 51 864 010, ostehuset.no
Preikestolen Fjellstue Mountain Lodge The ideal pitstop pre or post a hike up Preikestolen. Expect local ingredients. From £87. Preikestolvegen 521, Jørpeland, 00 47 51 840 200, preikestolenfjellstue.no
RE-NAA Matbaren Cool and casual bistro. It’s the perfect spot for rustic, honest dishes such as mussels, burgers and gourmet open sandwiches. Set menu £79. Breitorget 6, 00 47 51 551 111, restaurantrenaa.no
RE-NAA Studio Feast on some of Norway’s finest produce at this two-star Michelin restaurant. Twenty-two courses £135. Wine pairing £100. Breitorget 6, 00 47 51 551 111, restaurantrenaa.no
Sabi Omakase Enjoy a Michelin-starred sushi set menu at this omakase bar that serves 100 per cent Norwegian fish. Eighteen courses £125, exc wine. Pedersgata 38, 00 47 92 543 781, omakase.no
- Fårikål: mutton stew
- Hjort: deer
- Iskrem: ice cream
- Jordskokk: Jerusalem artichoke
- Kamskjell: scallops
- Kantarell: mushrooms
- Kjøttboller: meatballs
- Krabbe: crab
- Krumkake: waffle-like pancake
- Lakris: liquorice
- Laks: salmon
- Lamm: lamb
- Makril: mackerel
- Osters: oysters
- Reke: shrimp
- Rømme: roe
- Sylt: jam
- Tomat: tomato
Olivia Palamountain and Ulf Svane travelled to Stavanger courtesy of Visit Norway. visitnorway
This article was published on 21st June 2017 so certain details may not be up to date.