Outrage as vandals wreck gingerbread town

Several hundred gingerbread houses were smashed to pieces as vandals broke into a tent harbouring "the world's biggest gingerbread town" in downtown Bergen last night.

Outrage over the havoc wrought by "the gingerbread vandals" was the first thing that met me when I logged on to Twitter this morning, and the story is currently all over the frontpages of Norway's national news sites.

A police officer investigating the affair has told the country's media that to wreck hundreds of gingerbread houses made by Bergen's children the perpetrators must be close to retarded (in Norwegian), and it has been suggested that the outrage will be even bigger if it turns out the mischief was wrought by a "foreigner" (here to be understood as someone not born in Bergen as there are those who feel Bergen is like a nation within a nation. People from other Norwegian cities, especially Oslo, are often made to feel like foreigners there).

The gingerbread town is a popular tradition in Bergen dating back to 1991 and has more than 5000 fans on Facebook, according to VG.no. There's currently a flurry of proposals on Facebook, Twitter ( #pepperkakeby ) and in mainstream media about rebuilding the town - and, more flippantly, campaigning for homeless gingerbread men and women. 

Christmas traditions can certainly be serious business in Norway. For my last column for Viking Magazine, I talked to a woman who had something close to a Phd on Christmas dinners. She said Christmas is like a food memorial feast, and few traditions are as sacred to Norwegians as those associated with this time of the year.

Not because of the religious aspects, but because there's nothing like this season's food to realize family belonging - and, mind you, there's a lot of time and effort that goes into making this food. I remember how devasted I was when I lived in London, or Hertfordshire strictly speaking, and my perfect gingerbread house, carefully decorated, only lasted a few days before it melted before our eyes in the dampness of our flat (though or landlord insisted it was only "condensation", and when I called a solicitor friend for advice on how to get out of the fixed term contract he said something to the tune of how 'tenants in this country have all sorts of rights, but acting on them could ruin your life'. When we still tried, our landlord sent a former MI5 agent around to our flat to have chat, but that's a different story). 

My point? Christmas cookies, and especially ginger bread houses, is no laughing matter.

I know this story easily lends itself to ridicule, and a good sub would have a ball with it, but last time anything remotely similar happened to me I was 27 and I still found it depressing (to make matters worse, we tried twice: but the last house was constructed by my then partner, who is Dutch, and only stayed in one piece for a day).            

This gingerbread town was made by a kindergarden in a different part of Norway, and the photo is from Drammensbibliotekets Flickr stream, republished here under a Creative Commons licence

And so the weird food season kicked off

...And boy did it make me queasy. This week, the weird food season officially kicked off, at least for my part. This lovely-looking fishy treat was served when I attended the annual meeting of the National Journalist Union's (NJ's) art association mid-week. It was only the second time in my life I ventured to eat this traditional dish (the first time was at last year's NJ art association meeting), but it's actually quite nice, believe it or not. If you're not familiar with rakfisk, it's fermented rainbow trout usually served with potatoes, lefse, onion, mustard and sour cream (as well as beer and aquavit).

As it happened I found myself quite unable to eat the next day, but was later reliably informed by the resident alpine coach and health expert that was for being silly enough to try Albanian whisky, which apparently everybody but me knows, or knew rather, is not filtered - and hence dangerous stuff. That made for a weird new experience: head was great the day after, but I was SO nauseous and traditional remedies, such as paracetamol, did nothing to alleviate it - just had to wait for it to get out of my body.

Anyway, as I was walking around in the belief that the fish was to blame for this uncomfortable state of affairs - after all, some folks call rakfisk "rotten fish", it certainly smells like that, the funniest description I've seen of it so far is "dead trout put in a bucket to rot"  -  I thought to myself that I had a very trying season in front of me, seeing that, in Norway, the time before Christmas is filled with corporate and family get togethers with Norwegian "delicacies" such as Rakfisk, Lutefisk (cod prepared with lye/caustic soda) and Smalahove....

WAN/ WEF 2008: A Very Swedish Party

Since I had to leave this year's WAN Congress/ World Editors' forum on Tuesday to cover other events, I do not know how the show progressed from here, but this was by far the most surreal party I have been to for a very long time:


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It kicked off with fiddlers in national costumes performing drinking songs, while the waiters served herring, aquavit and salmon...


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an act which was followed by an ABBA look-alike band playing around with fake guns and singing cover versions of old ABBA and Grease songs..


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As the music filled the restaurant tent, and the world's editors and publishers started dancing to old ABBA tunes and the light from a big advertisement screen for Volvo, I thought it safer to steal away with a few Brits and Norsemen to have beer in a less psychedelic setting... ( by which point my camera batteries were starting to go out, hence the darkness of the last two pictures)....


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What made me feel very uneasy through most of this spectacle was knowing all too well that had this been Norway, it would probably have been fiddlers and an A-Ha look-alike band, and only the time of the year would have saved the guests from being served Lutefisk (cod in lye) or something even more exotic....

How to (not) pitch a blogger

Just as I was putting together that post on Blondinbella and product placement, I came across Natalie's wonderful Blogging 101 for Publicists: an excellent tutorial in blogger relations for PRs from my favourite mixologist (who as far as I know blog for ... eh.. love and public spirit)

I know I've complained about some of the silly PR approaches I get as blogger in the past, and even linked Natalieliquidmuse_4
up some useful advice
on how not to go about it
, but Natalie offers nothing less than her "PSA for the other remaining few PR professionals who seem to have missed the memo explaining what a blog is and how it works," and generously says "Go on, drink up… this one’s on me". A few headlines:

Lession #4: The blogger has the final say.
Think of a blog as a publication. Now, realize that the blogger is the Senior Editor, Publisher and Art Director, rolled into one.

The clincher in the offensive email was this person’s feeling that she was doing me a favor, rather than realizing that it is, in fact, the other way around. This condescending line stuck like a bone in my throat:

“I treat you like a journalist, and thus expected a rapport like what I have with serious journalists.”

Umm... considering my bylines appear in national and regional print and online publications, most actually consider me a journalist, thank you very much. It would be appropriate to “treat me” as such. I was also a bit insulted – on behalf of myself and other bloggers – at the implication that bloggers are somehow lowlier than journalists, and not to be taken as seriously. Ironically, most bloggers I know are far more informed about a specific topic than the majority “staff writers.” And, believe me when I tell you that many of those “serious journalists” rip-off content from our blogs, on a regular basis, because we have become the experts in our niches.

Lesson #5: Understand the difference between a blog post and a magazine article.
Being a professional writer includes having the skill to change writing style, tone - and even the rules - when writing for any particular outlet. My blog "voice" is completely different from my magazine articles. I use the “first person,” spout my opinions and am influenced by my own biases. Its a free-form arena. I write exactly the way I want to, when I want to, about what I want to. If you like my style, pitch me your clients. If you don’t, there are a whole slew of other cocktail bloggers out there. Have at ‘em. Or, better yet, forget the Internet and stick with print.

Lesson #6: Become acquainted with what I call “the power of the blog.”
You see, back in 2005, when I held my final “salary job,” I was a restaurant publicist. Our PR firm had begun pitching food bloggers. At the time, I didn’t totally get what a blog was – but I knew it tapped into a valuable demographic many print publications didn’t reach. When I finally “hopped the fence” to write full time, in January 2006, the first thing I did was launch The Liquid Muse where I blogged, daily, because I had become so passionate about spirits, wine and cocktails. I took a 100% pay cut. Even today, my blog is a labor of love. The fact that thousands of people, every month, stop by to get their cocktail updates at The Liquid Muse is of huge personal satisfaction to me, and provides a valuable service to both the liquor companies and the readers, if I do say so myself. And, my readers know I’m not stifled by editors, publicists or advertisers. This is the power of the blog.

Lesson #7: Print is dying. Be nice to bloggers... Go check out the full post here.


A rather unusual food weekend

You might even call it an adventurous food weekend. Challenging is another word that springs to mind, it certainly wasn't boring.

On Friday, I attended a birthday bash for a friend of mine, and was served this for dinner.

Hence, I felt a bit queasy on Saturday, the memory of looking at last night's dinner fresh in mind, but when I attended the birthday party of an ex-boss, who turned 29 (for the eight year in a row or so), one of the main courses on the menu was êntrecote with a sauce of chocolate and basil, and curiosity got the better of me. I ended up sharing it with three other girls as a starter (the dish was as 'unfocused' as the picture. I like chilli and dark chocolate used to spice up some dishes, like chilli con carne, but chocolate married with basil? Nah... )


For main course, I shared this with another friend, much safer: salmon and halibut in a lemon-based cream sauce adorned with crayfish and moules (the fish was a bit overcooked, but otherwise nice composition:


Would you eat this?

For the benefit of squeamish readers I've posted a smaller picture, click on it if you want a bigger version.

What do you do if say, you're a foreign businessman who happen find yourself invited out to dinner by your Norwegian business contacts in Bergen in December, or, as in my case, you attend a birthday bash and all the guests are served a half sheep's head, like on the picture, each?


In this case, most of the birthday guests, other than me, were family. The ten-year-old chick, who'd grown up in Voss (on the West Coast of Norway), happily chewed the eye, and declared the tongue nothing less than a delicacy, which meant the two twenty-something men at the table (you know, male pride and all of that) felt they couldn't bulk out and let a ten-year-old girl reveal them to be squeamish.

In other words, a very memorable evening where I felt myself transposed back to the time of the Vikings. (Incidentally, I have a piece in the February issue of the Viking Magazine, but it's about Norwegians and Skiing). Many people praise themselves lucky that this traditional dish usually comes with generous amounts of beer and aquavit.

I was also reminded of this excellent commercial from HSBC.

Eating sheep's head is actually a long honoured tradition on the West Coast of Norway: there, it is considered a delicacy, and many families can't quite picture Christmas without it (there's never been a tradition for stuffed turkey in this country, and in the West Country another big Christmas tradition, other than sheep's head, is eating Lutefisk (cod in lye) ). Both of these traditions were born out of necessity: the first shortage of food, the second the need to preserve the food while e.g. transporting it (in the good old days, before modern preservatives or freezing technology was invented, drying the fish and then soaking it in soap must have seemed like a good way to extend the food's sell-by-date). But, as time goes by, what was once born out of necessity, tend to become tradition, and at some point a rather expensive delicacy (I wonder what the poor man's Christmas dinner is in this country, Pizza Grandiosa??).

Which brings me back to my original question, how would you feel being served this at some formal function?

Just in case..

You are feeling a bit rough today:
Folks, ladies and gentlemen of the cyber-booze world, children, pets and your respective owners, I have unequivocally discovered the cure for hangovers:

Egg Drop Soup ...That's right. Egg Drop Soup is a little miracle from the land of the Great Wall, political oppression and Chairman Mao paraphernalia. Take the long march down to your local Chinese food source and order it now, and never fear the perils of "over drinking" again... (Courtesy of DC Drinks).

Who said Norwegian beer was expensive?

Tell you what: try having a coke in a bar here. Norway's most expensive pint of coke adds up to £7,60 with today's currency rate. Having 0,4 litre beer in the same place costs £4,90. All according to today's print edition of VG (a direct link to the article doesn't seem to be avilable online), who sent their squad of investigative journalists out to check the price level nationwide. Appearantly Norway charges Europe's highest taxes on mineral water - and here I was thinking that it was alcoholic beverages Norwegian authorities were trying to tax out of existence...

Devon Farmed Snails

Yesterday I found myself half-watching the France-Switzerland game in a hotel bar over a few drinks. On the menu of this rather up-market place I found "Devon farmed snails on toast with young vegetables and herb butter". Now aside form the fact that I was there with a friend who gets sick every time he attempts to eat butter, and never has eaten a snail in his entire life, what really bugged me was how Devon farmed snails are different from e.g. French snails, Hertfordshire snails or Scally snails? Is the texture different? The slime? I did taste a snail once in a French restaurant, which sort of makes you assume it was a French snail: it tasted rather like rubber. With the difference in climate it would make sense for French snails to be a bit drier, and British snails a bit more moist - or shall we say succulent? After all, if French philosopher Montesquieu thought the difference in climate made the Northern Europeans brave and energetic and the Southern Europeans lazy and sensual, it would only be logical if climate didn't also impact on the physique of a snail. Could anyone enlighten me here? I don't think it likely that I'll be tempted to taste any more snails in this lifetime, so won't undertake any empirical surveys, but I would really like to know....

New cocktail blog: The Liquid Muse

Here's a new blog I know you're just going to love: “The Liquid Muse: A guide to cocktails, Happy Hour, lounges, wines of the world, the occasional beerhouse… and the people that quench our thirst.”

Should be a good place to start if you need some inspiration for tonight's party. Natalie also appreciates hints and tips on new drinks, so feel free to submit your favourite (include drink name, recipe and photo) to theliquidmuse at yahoo dot com.