06.26.10

Dinner Under the Midnight Sun

The first installment of our new series celebrating summer travel and food, a seasonal café in northern Norway opens for a few weeks of delicious food with the 24-hour sun.

Summer nights are different—the weather is warmer, the sky remains bright late into the night, fruits and vegetables are sweeter and more abundant. We make more time for human connection. We pack our travel bags more often.

A Hundred Summer Nights: A Global Celebration of the Summer Table is a multi-week series that animates two of the great impulses of summer, long leisurely meals with family and friends and faraway voyages. It offers an intimate look at the season that invites us outdoors, deep into the water, high up on mountain cliffs, to far away cities and country villas; paeans to buds bursting on bougainvillea and grapes ripening in the vineyards; and reminders of the moments when days are longer, pigments are darker and clothes are lighter and less important.

Click Below to View Our Gallery of Myken, Norway

The series begins with the just-past summer solstice. From there, it will unfold over the next few months with portraits of people from around the globe whose lives are inextricably linked to the land on which they make their homes, and invitations to join their dinner tables. Many of the featured meals will grow out of the activities of the day—building smoke pits, toasting spices, fly fishing and scouring local markets; they will bring you to hilltop villages, ancient forests and collections of clay pots.

Wherever possible, meals will be accompanied by local wines made from varietals with historical ties to the featured region: In Sicily, grilled baby squid and pistachio ravioli may be accompanied by a bottle of Nerello Mascalese from Mt. Etna; in Cape Town, a platter of curried samoosa may be served with a Franschhoek Pinotage; in Provence, a pissaldiére and salad of roasted eggplant may come with a crisp Bagnol rosé made from Mourvedre.

Each installment will also have recipes of the dishes discussed and a photo gallery of the places described.

The title is an allusion to the vineyard: a hundred nights, beginning in mid-June and ending late-September, is the average time between the flowering of the vine and the harvesting of the grapes. I am grateful to Olivier Leflaive for agreeing to photograph a vine in his Puligny-Montrachet vineyard each week for the duration of the series, so we will be able follow summer’s natural arc through the legendary Burgundy Chardonnay’s evolution to maturity.

In this first installment, we introduce you to an extraordinary woman in Myken, Norway, who turns her home into a restaurant for the six weeks of continuous sunlight known throughout the world as the midnight sun.

Myken, Norway

From the high-speed ferry between coastal Norway to the Arctic Circle, Myken looms like a giant pile of rocks thrown into the sea, rough raw material left over from when the rest of the earth was whittled into forests and hilltops. The island has a year-round population of 19, along with a school, a post office, and a doctor boat.

Residents live in wooden houses painted in primary colors and face northwest along the road running parallel to the harbor. From these homes one can see the lighthouse, the jetty, some small islands, but nothing more. It is literally the end of the earth.

In June and July, the midnight sun renders Myken’s days indistinguishable from its nights. It is bright all the time. People sleep only when they are tired. Boats moor in the harbor. Vacationers camp in wooden fishing huts. Wildflowers shoot up between the rocks. The population swells to 100. And Gro Bygdevoll, the local schoolteacher, transforms her home into Karenstua Café, for its annual six-week run.

The menu never changes at Karenstua Café. The centerpiece is always sautéed fresh caught uer, a local crimson-skinned fish with a sweet nutty flesh reminiscent of red snapper. Gro goes to her garden as guests walk in her door and snips a handful of fresh herbs—parsley, chives, dill, oregano, thyme, whatever is available.

Cultivating herbs on Myken is no small accomplishment. The island has no indigenous trees. Trees planted in backyards never grow taller than the wooden homes because they cannot survive the Arctic gusts.

She sautés the uer in a cast-iron skillet, adding a clove of minced garlic half way through so that it doesn’t have time to burn and/or turn bitter, then fresh herbs as the fish is finished cooking. She places the warm skillet at the center of the guests’ table along with a green salad, baby potatoes and a special sauce of crème fraîche, mustard, lime juice and grated apple. As guests help themselves, she returns to her garden.

“I keep bringing the fish in the skillet until they can’t eat anymore,” says Gro. “People come from all over Norway, especially the sailors along the coast. I’ve had sailors knock on my door and announce, ‘I’ve come all the way from the south for your uer!’”

To drink, Gro offers a South German-style lager from Mack, the local and world’s northernmost brewery, and whatever wine is available at the local store. For dessert, she serves fruit with crème fraîche, lime, or balsamic vinegar, and brownies with a heavy emphasis on warm melting chocolate.

Karenstua Café is a meetinghouse in the truest sense of the word. People come to talk and perform. Entertainment happens spontaneously. A guest will take out a guitar and start to play; someone else will pass out books with words to the songs.

While today Gro is a pillar of Myken’s close-knit community, her time on the island has not always been so charmed. She grew up in Stavanger, Norway's third-largest city, and met her husband when he was stationed there for military training. She was 19 and a self-described “68-er,” the European equivalent of a hippie. He was a Myken fisherman. They moved to Myken shortly after marrying. She felt stifled and miserable in the little village. After 10 years, her husband sold his boat and they spent six years traveling. To her surprise, during that time she could not get Myken out of her mind. The landscape haunted her at every moment. It called for her to return home.

Myken’s population shrank from 90 to 19 during the years Gro was gone. People began to question whether the island would cease to be a viable year-round community. Gro and her husband refurbished the lighthouse to attract more tourists and bought Karenstua, Myken’s oldest residence. Around the same time, Bjorn Skaug, an airline executive who had summered in Myken since his childhood, moved to the island and committed himself to its regeneration. He opened a boat shop and a soldering factory for electronics and persuaded the regional government to build a water-purification plant. The plant transforms fjords into drinking water, eliminating the need to collect rainwater in buckets and facilitating Myken’s role as a hub for fishing boats.

Gro opened Karenstua Café with the belief that the people of Myken needed someplace to gather in the summer and eat good food. Local residents treated it like a joke at first. To get her first customer, she walked up to a holiday resident, an elderly man, and said, ‘You have to be my guest,’ then served him cake and coffee. Slowly people started to come. “For many years it was very small, then the rumors went wild,” says Gro. Eighteen years later, Karenstua Café is as much a part of the Myken summer as the midnight sun.

To learn more about visiting Myken, Norway: http://www.myken.no/experiencemyken.html

Red Snapper Karenstua

This is the rare fish dish that is simple to make, while possessing flavors that are complex, elegant and a little surprising as a result of the array of herbs used at the end.

1 lb red snapper fillet
1 1/2 tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh herbs (dill, oregano, thyme, parsley), chopped
1 tsp fine sea or kosher salt
1/2 tsp white pepper

On a clean plate, season both sides of the snapper filets with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a cast-iron skillet or heavy nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Lay the snapper skin-side down and cook for 3 minutes, until the skin has contracted and the fish appears to float. Using a fish spatula, gently turn the snapper fillets. Add the garlic to the pan and cook for three more minutes, until the fish flakes when pierced with a fork. Sprinkle the herbs on the skin of the fish. Spoon the melted butter over the herbs and serve the snapper directly from the skillet.

Gro’s Special Sauce

1/2 cup crème fraiche
1 whole granny smith apple, peeled and grated
1/2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp white pepper

Place the crème fraiche in a medium-size mixing bowl, add the remaining ingredients and whisk.

Boiled New Potatoes

1 lb new potatoes, or other small, thin-skinned spud
1/2 tbsp fine sea salt or kosher salt

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan. Add enough cold water to cover the potatoes by two inches. Add the salt. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork.

Simon Aplin, the sommelier at La Table d’Olivier Leflaive, recommends serving Chablis with the red snapper from Karenstua Café. The wine’s fresh flavors, minerality, and hint of saltiness go extremely well with seafood.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.