Organizers were expecting as many as 200,000 hungry people to wander around this year’s expanded edition of Norway’s largest outdoor food fair known as Matstreif. The annual event, first held in Oslo in 2005, shows just how far upscale Norwegian food has come in terms of being trendy and popular as well as pricey.
Norwegian food fairs, or festivals as they’re more often called, don’t offer the kind of meat or produce found in most local grocery stores. Rather, they concentrate on Norwegian niche products and often expensive types of meat, dairy and other food items from small-scale producers.
The food fair in Oslo began on a long row of tables stretching down a portion of Karl Johans Gate in the heart of town, offering passersby a taste of unique food and beverages produced around Norway. It was the first time many had tasted a wide variety of specialty products including cheeses, jams, juices and baked goods.
The idea was to promote food and specialties from various parts of the country, and it was sponsored by the state ministries of agriculture, business and fishing and Innovation Norway. Interest was growing for locally grown goods and gourmet items, and efforts were being made to encourage more creativity among farmers and regional producers in the types of goods they offered.
The fair was a hit, and soon it started attracting large crowds and more vendors, plus local chefs who offered their culinary advice along with goods for sale. The fair moved to a much more spacious location on the City Hall Plaza and last year’s Matstreif attracted an estimated 160,000 visitors and 180 vendors.
This year it’s expanding even more, spreading not just over the City Hall Plaza but also into the adjacent Aker Brygge waterfront complex and the new Tjuvholmen beyond it, dubbed by the organizers as “perhaps Oslo’s most innovative restaurant milieu.” The restaurants themselves will be offering their fare as well, along with producers.
The fair, set for Friday and Saturday, has also grown far beyond just food tasting, with cooking classes, competitions and entertainment added to the agenda. Some of Norway’s best-known chefs will conduct courses and offer cooking tips to both adults and children.
It’s all about creating new markets for Norwegian food that’s known for being much more expensive than it is elsewhere. Food prices are a topic of ongoing debate in Norway, not least after they rose more than 3 percent just from June to July. Retailers blame wholesalers who blame Norway’s powerful cooperatives and the protectionist policies that restrict imports. Norway’s high labour costs and lack of arable land also play a major role, as does the country’s 15 percent VAT on food and 25 percent on other goods and services.
Price suddenly no object
Much of that is forgotten at food fairs, though, where consumers seem unusually willing to pay dearly for items viewed as unique or special, from unusual cuts of high-quality fresh lamb, for example, to fresh food and fancy cheeses. Food fairs and farmers’ markets have become popular in other cities around Norway and more producers are selling straight from their farms or in local cafés, to tourists and locals alike.
There’s also been a return to traditional methods of producing food, with some ambitious souls even making goat cheese this summer on an island in the Oslo fjord with no electricity or running water. The cheese has been sold holiday makers on the spot, and in at least one high-end food hall at Skøyen in Oslo.