Few places have so much rich nature to offer its visitors and residents as the Norwegian county of East Agder with Ulvøya as its southern and western most points on the coast, and Gjærstadtangen as the eastern most.
The county also has a large hinterland to its north and center where the borders meet Rogaland, Hordaland and Hardangervidda.
Aust-Agder has an exciting coastline, with many narrow straits between a myriad of islands, islets and reefs. There are good fishing opportunities, although little regular fishing takes place anymore in comparison to the rest of the Norwegian coast. Mackerel is still important, and it is mentioned as early as in the Saga Age, when it was called “iolunn”. Mackerel got its current name in the 1500s.
The coastal climate here is mild, as this is probably the part of Norway which gets the most sun during a normal summer. Also, the southern coast, including East Agder, has beautiful and well protected harbors and a rich sailing tradition – making the environment particularly pleasant. Tourists from far and wide come here to experience this charming coastline.
The hinterland in East Agder has rich forest resources which have formed the basis for trade in timber and timber products, both intended for export and domestic trade. The towns along the south coast have been influenced from abroad by diverse ship calls, thus learning about foreign lands, cultures and the eating habits of the outside world.
This outside influence has resulted in access to new products including different kinds of spices and salt. Salt was not new, however, as local inhabitants had long evaporated seawater to extract salt, mainly used for food storage.
Locals here have an early knowledge of honey. There are no reliable sources stating that bee-keeping began in Norway in the Middle Ages, although the practice had been attempted on official farms and in convents.
The county was in many ways a step ahead of the rest of the country in understanding and exploiting natural resources.
East Agder does not only consist of its coastline, but also goes inland with long valleys. Setesdalen is unique, and has a long tradition in building methods, handicrafts, folk music and culinary traditions. People here have also been better at preserving their traditions than at many other places in Norway. Until the 1800s the inhabitants of Setesdalen lived their own lives and were not much concerned about what the new people along the coast were doing. Setesdalen consisted of relatively small farms where forests were an important source of income, producing a great deal of fruits, berries and vegetables both here and in the coastal district of Grimstad.
East Agder has so much to offer, and for those who are looking for Norwegian national dishes this area is an Eldorado.
The national character here is the same as on the rest of the southern coast – a smiling landscape and smiling people – if one can put it that way. The soft dialect reinforces this impression. The poet Vilhelm Krag from Kristiansand also reinforces this impression in his poems, in which he tells of this southern Norwegian smile.
There are many Norwegian national dishes to be discovered in this county; a tension between inland and coastal areas, between the old farmer and the fishing culture. Here is our recipe for mackerel soup:
1 kilo salted mackerel
2 liters of water
80 grams whole grain
150 grams turnips
150 grams carrots
300 grams potatoes
100 grams cabbage
0,5 liter milk
fine chopped chives
Serves 4 – 5 persons
Place the mackerel in water for 24 hours. Let the grains soak in water equally long.
Let the grains boil for about one hour. Rinse and slice the cabbage, the carrots and the potatoes into cubes or sticks.
Cut the mackerel into suitable pieces, if desired remove the fish-bones. Add more water to the barley, and add the vegetables. Let it cook for 10-12 minutes. Add the fish and let it simmer for a further 10 minutes.
This soup is popular all over the South Coast. In some places it has gained a more modern form with different additions. Ask a southerner about traditional food, and he or she will mention “mackerel soup” with a smile on their faces – even if they remember that they might not like it as a child.
The Smiling Landscape of Southern Norway, written by Tor Kjolberg