Everyone has their own idea of a place, a snapshot memory encapsulating the scenes, smells, and moods they experienced there. One person’s Paris is different than another’s. A visit to Seattle might be dreary for one and vibrant for another. With that in mind, let me take you to my Bergen–not the rain-soaked city you may picture, rightfully so given it rains there more than 260 days a year, but the place that exists in my personal catalogue of memories.
Golden skies bathed in sun-drenched heat. Chilled rosé in the cool, dim cave of our hotel restaurant. Seagulls perched on the roofs around the famous open-air seafood market. Bergen was alive when I visited in the summer of 2008. Ski boats ferried joyful passengers in the harbor housing Bryggen, the Hanseatic wharf. A biker could comfortably break out his ride with no concern of rain. Any restaurant with patio seating was the place to be.
I’ve been reliving that trip this past week since cooking a batch of Bergen Fish Soup (Bergensk fiskesuppe). The soup is one of the best fish soups in the world, right up there with bouillabaisse, according to chef Andreas Viestad. Some say the absolute proper way to make it, Viestad writes Kitchen of Light, is to purchase live pollock at the fish market–which is one of the biggest and best-known outdoor fish markets in northern Europe–and make the stock the same day. It’s possible to bring the taste of Bergen home, however, with quality fish stock, such as the halibut variety from our neighborhood fishmonger.
As with most classic dishes, the recipes and styles vary. One cook might choose to use only white fish while another might add salmon or perhaps scallops and prawns. Some add dumplings while others omit them. One person might ladle thick, chowder-like portions into bowls while a neighbor makes it on the lighter side with the seafood surrounded by a creamy broth.
No matter the style, the soup allows the flavor of the seafood to shine, proving that a handful of quality ingredients simply prepared can go a long way.
Bergen Fish Soup (Bergensk fiskesuppe)
This version is on the light side, which makes it perfect for dinner on a late spring evening when you need a little warming. Adapted from Scandilicious: Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking by Signe Johansen, this recipe veers slightly from the traditional by adding a small amount of spices and giving sweetness with white wine and brandy rather than an abundance of root vegetales and a touch of sugar. Johansen grew up in Bergen, however, so she knows the essence of the soup and has created an elegant recipe that comes together so quickly it can easily be a weeknight meal. The mix of seafood is flexible; use whatever is fresh and available.
6 1/3 cups quality fish stock
1 bay leaf
1 handful flat-leaf parsley stems, plus additional leaves for garnish
12 whole peppercorns
2 carrots, roughly diced
2 celery stalks, roughly diced
1 leek, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup brandy
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3 1/2 ounces salmon fillet, cubed into 3/4-inch pieces
3 1/2 ounces prawns, shells removed
5 ounce cod fillet, cubed into 3/4-inch pieces
8 ounces clams, with shells
Finely-chopped chives, for garnish
Heat fish stock, bay leaf, parsley, peppercorns, carrots, celery, and leek in a large pan and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the wine and brandy and simmer for five more minutes, then add the cream. Once the soup has returned to a simmer, add the salmon, cod, and clams and cook for a minute or two before adding the prawns, which should only take an additional minute or two to cook.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with additional parsley leaves and chives. Serve with crispbread.