In the Norwegian ski resort of Voss, the Viking Grandson met up with Trygve, a tall, lean, terribly pallid fellow with protruding eyes. Trygve was an original hail-fellow-well-met and, as such, was an excellent director of the Voss tourist office. Perhaps it was the first item of discussion, perhaps the second, but very early on in our acquaintanceship Trygve suggested the subject of a smalahove dinner. I knew not of what Trygve spoke.
So, over a bottle of Linie aquavit (a brand of the Norwegian national drink which is always aged by the romantic process of gently rocking in the hold of some ship bound on a voyage of several months' duration) Trygve explained about eating smalahove. Not so many years ago—perhaps even back in 1888 when Knute Rockne was born in Voss—the villagers existed in a state of poverty so desperate that they were often forced to find nourishment in the meanest edibles around. One, it turned out, was smalahove—the head of a sheep, which is ordinarily discarded after the animal is butchered for mutton.
"Given the way life changes," said Trygve, "what once seemed a stark necessity to avoid starvation sometimes becomes a delicacy. Such as snails or calves' brains. And now Voss is the world's Number One importer of sheeps' heads, perhaps. I say 'perhaps' because we do not know for certain. Worldwide statistics are not kept of such information."
Trygve went on to say that in Voss a sheep's head now costs about $3.75 and that, as a rule, one must order one from a local meat market or hotel kitchen several days in advance. Trygve had good connections, however, and the very evening after the subject of smalahove was first broached, I found myself seated at a candle-lighted banquet table, awaiting the specialty of Voss. Before the meal there was much quaffing of aquavit in small glasses, followed by tumblers of homemade beer (an oddly sweet stuff with a truly impressive orangy-golden color). Trygve explained that to prepare smalahove one first singed off the wool, then soaked the head in brine for three days. Then it is placed in a smokehouse filled with the smoke of birchwood for two more days, and it is taken into a kitchen and boiled for three hours just before it is served upon a large platter.
Given Trygve's rather impersonal description of the culinary process, I was not fully prepared for the arrival of a smalahove. But there, upon the prescribed platter, it lay—eyes gently closed, an innocent and friendly turn to its mouth. If it was not actually Mary's lamb then it was just yesterday being addressed from some nursery as Bah-Bah Black Sheep.
The Viking Grandson found himself able to eat with fair gusto. The jowls were juicy and tasty. Not so strong as mutton. Other parts were tougher but quite enjoyable. Then Trygve rose again and said quite seriously, "The eyeball is considered the best of all. And any good host must offer it first to his guest before he takes it for himself." The morsel was placed quite carefully upon the Viking Grandson's plate.
At first I was silent, then I remembered my Midwest manners and said, "Takk, mange tusen takk, Trygve," which meant "many thousand thanks." Then I ate the eyeball of the sheep and thought no more about it. What was good enough for Knute Rockne was good enough for me.
Heimebrent, the Viking Grandson learned in Narvik, Norway, is what Norwegians call their moonshine. A ship's pilot named Jon, who was driving a cab for a while in Narvik during the town's annual celebration of the railroad being finished to Kiruna, told me, "This week people get drunk all week. Mostly on heimebrent. To make heimebrent you take one kilo of yeast, 10 kilos of sugar and 25 liters of water. You let it set for two weeks in gallon jugs, then distill it by burning it hot enough to boil, and, of course, condense the steam. It is 94% alcohol and to drink it without dying you must mix it with something."
Later, a woman with many gold teeth told me that the best way to enjoy heimebrent was to make kaffee kark. Her recipe: take a china cup and put a silver kroner piece in the bottom. Pour coffee over the coin until it disappears. Then pour in heimebrent (which is colorless) until the coin is visible again. Add a spoon or two of sugar and you have kaffee kark. After tasting it, the Viking Grandson told the woman that he was surprised she still had the gold in her teeth. Then he declared it was the perfect apéritif before dining on eye of smalahove.