The Empire of Light

Embarking on a Cheese Odyssey: Norway’s “Empire of Light” unveiled by Franco Sessa – The Grand Gourmand

Every year I am privileged and honoured to be invited as a judge at the World Cheese Award competition. An international panel made of cheese experts from 40 different countries have the glorious task to taste more than 4000 cheeses (in one day!) and declare the best cheese in the world. Considering the magnitude and reputation of such global event, European governments and their local counties compete in becoming the hosting venue.

In November 2023, this annual ritual was held in Trondheim, the third largest city of Norway.

Scandinavian countries have always been on our wish list for overseas travelling so the prospect of few days of work and two weeks of touring was a no brainer. Even the thought of departing from an inbound New Zealand summer and heading into a relentless artic winter did not deter the work commitment from getting me where I was supposed to go. I always make the point to arrive in that country several days before the event starting date. Clearing jet lag symptoms is a must, lack of the right sleep patterns and altered biological clocks can really affect sensory performance and of course poor concentration and low stamina can make long and busy days even longer and busier. The prejudging days are spent visiting farms, cheese factories, cheese stores, restaurants, local universities to meet with farmers, cheesemakers, retailers and other industry professional. Understanding local dairy techniques, traditions, trends and challenges will provide a clear picture of the terroir and its perception of taste parameters. The trip to Norway had started according to the pre competition cheese related plan until the point when we decided to cover the distance from Oslo to Trondheim with a less ordinary alternative.

The 1-hour flight was replaced by a 12-hour train ride, a journey that almost erased the mortal intention of the trip and instead lead us to a different place, the one I described as the Empire of Light. Am I referring to the masterpiece “The Empire of Light” from the famous Rene’ Magritte? You bet!

Don’t get me wrong, we were still somewhere in Norway, but my mind drifted to that unknown location pictured in the painting. A dark and mysterious residential lane, established trees growing along the sidewalk, just one solitary lamp post lighting a row of beautiful and ordinary houses. The sky behind the houses is still bright, a testament to an imminent dusk, yet the darkness of the street facades would be overwhelming and frightening. If the warm glow of light coming from some windows were not keeping at bay the advance of the obscurity. By looking at those windows, any bystander could feel the urge to walk towards those windows, with the promise of safety and snugness, in the same way a night moth would be attracted by the light of the lamp post. The train left Oslo central station in an gloomy and grey morning, it made its way to the less inhabited inland areas, fiord after fiord, between ravine banks and curved bridges, up on mountains feet and down into tunnels, daylight came to an end by 3 pm. Snow covered forests, small lakes and fast moving rivers were able to provide some relief from total obscurity by reflecting the small remaining daylight that filtered between the tops of the tallest mountains. It was at that point that the Empire of Light came to life and joined us. Out there, warm lights appeared randomly and were scattered in the rugged landscape like bonfire ambers lifted by the smoke, sometimes in far distance but, when closer to the rail track, they could be recognised as candles lit on windowsills of farmhouses and sheds.

At first, I thought those establishments had no power considering their isolation, but when crossing small villages, it soon became evident that electricity was available and used to power porch lights but still candles were burning slow behind the glass of mysterious rooms. For some reason the desire and the idea of knocking at each door was strong. The curiosity to know who was living in those homes, what they were doing and possibly to enjoy some local hospitality. That thought was drifting in and out of reality, coming to the realization that I was still a passenger on a running train and that possibly it would have been extremely weird and creepy to stand on a stranger’s porch while knocking at their front door. This imagination become the entertainment of most of the second half of the 12 hours train journey, but the curiosity remained even when the train started to decelerate in view of the city lights of Trondheim. Again, even the cab ride from the central station to the inner-city hotel, drove us past modern houses in fancy neighbourhoods and old houses in students’ quarters, many windows at street level were adorned with tiny lit small lamps, the kind you’ll use as a bedside lamp. By that point my curiosity was off the chart, and I promised myself I would get to the bottom of it and learn what it was all about, Norway and its lights in the windows! I was open to immerse myself in local folklore filled with stories of reindeers and elves, legends of forest spirits and hungry wolves.

The cheese contest was the perfect place to start my investigation. During the two day event, between a great cheese and an outstanding cheese, I had the time to meet old friends, fellow cheese experts, local cheesemakers, cheesemongers and competition stewards. The ideal poll of Norwegian people coming from different walks of life, belonging to a wider age group and living in multiple locations. At first the responses were not as exciting as expected; younger people said that the lights on the windowsills were more like a trend and they grew up with that concept. In modern years lamp models had become more stylish and creative, replacing the old candle holder or the incandescent light bulbs with led lights and mood tones – just another appliance to decorate a home. The story took a turn when questions were asked to more seasoned people. “It is a Scandinavian tradition!” they said. For centuries lighted windows showed the safe way home to sailors lost at sea and to exhausted hunters wandering in the forests. Those windows represented a beacon of hope and survival in an environment determined to defeat any human nature with its harsh living conditions. For months on end the human eye adjusted to a perennial state of darkness, no sun in the sky or at the horizon at all to fight the long artic winter. No wonder a small particle of artificial light was enough to lift any spirit caught in the open, the same as an oasis in the desert would herald the presence of water to the thirst dying traveller. During long and harsh dark winters even the farmer coming from his barn could barely find the path to his home, with fences and tracks well under the snow, yet that small candle lit on the kitchen windowsill was guiding him, or even his neighbours, to a cosy and heartwarming home. Small traditions like this have contributed for centuries to not just the survival but, also to the thriving of cultures in inhospitable and rugged corners of the earth, living in harmony with nature in a world where the light is a precious gift, a world that could be called “the empire of light”. I am told that Gangstadt Gårdsysteri dairy, the 2024 world cheese champion competition winner, also have lamps on the windowsill of their farmhouse factory, true to the traditions of their land.

Franco Sessa aka The Grand Gourmand is a turophile, International cheese judge, Gardening and Lifestyle magazine editor and contributor, and food lover. Growing up in La Valle dei Mulini (the valley of the watermills) in Gragnano, Southern Italy was a perfect childhood for Franco, learning about cheese, agriculture and the old traditions handed down through his family. Franco’s gourmand ventures took him to New Zealand, where for the past 23 years he has worked in the New Zealand specialty cheese industry, from cheese making to sales and every other role in between. In recent years his expertise has focused on education and promotion of speciality cheese consumption and appreciation to retail consumers, wholesalers and the hospitality sector.

Insta: the.grand.gourmand
Website: The Grand Gourmand – Acadamy of Cheese

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