Tor–Emil Sivertsen, aka ‘Varangerkokken’ (The Varanger chef), is a gentleman with a booming voice and a formidable presence. He is a passionate campaigner for the riches of the only eastwardly fjord in Norway, and suggests one should eat one’s way through Varanger: ‘Fresh salmon from the river in Tana, reindeer in Nesseby, king crab in Vadsø and here in Vardø the cod is waiting for you’. It all makes sense. This is a place where herbs, berries, mushrooms, wild crops, reindeer, game and everything from the sea are local, organic and free for all! (minus the reindeer of course).
Tor–Emil has worked at the Vardø Hotel for 20 years. Now his company runs the kitchen, does catering and he travels cooking and teaching at nurseries, schools and fairs all over Norway and Europe. ‘I thank my granny for my inspiration, especially for my love for traditional home cooking and recipes.’ She used to cook for the whole family while his parents worked in the fish industry. When Tor–Emil introduced her to wok vegetables he had learned to make at the culinary school in Honningsvåg, his granny was enraptured (sic). ‘She was used to carrot, swede and potatoes, maybe with a bit of oyster herb, scurvygrass, yarrow or cow parsley to top it off’. These are herbs Tor-Emil uses too whenever he has the time to go collect them. It just so happened that we pinned our eyes on the very same oyster herb while driving up the Varangerfjord and we had to stop the car to get a closer look at this fascinating plant. It also happened to grow at the place where we set our camp in Vardø, so we figured it was destiny that we’d make an edible attire of it.
Vardø has always lived off fish and the community was founded on fishery. Over the last 30 years its population has halved due to the restructuring of that industry. When filet production moved to China, 200 jobs disappeared overnight. Tor-Emil explains how there used to be 3 or 4 filleting factories in every village in Finnmark. ‘Today there is one left in Båtsfjord and one in Hammerfest. My tattoo stands for the mission of reinforcing our own history and traditions. Norway wouldn’t exist, if it wasn’t for the cod’.
‘Varangerkokken’ has many things to say not only about fresh home cooking, but also about hospital food of which he has plenty of experience. He has spent considerable time in various hospitals after neck and back operations. ‘If you’ve been hospitalized for weeks, the two things you look forward to is the visit by the doctor and the food. If the food is bad, your day at the hospital is too. If the food is good, you have something to look forward to. A little variety to choose from and a little herb sprig is all that is needed to add a lot of of wow factor to a boring meal.’
Tor-Emil thinks Norway needs to do something about the hospital food across the country and encourages all of them to go back to ‘pre Toro times’ of cooking food with fresh ingredients again. In the 50s Toro reformed the way Norwegians cook, with their industrialised instant food, stock and bag foods. ‘It all became a lot easier for the average family to cook, but the generations growing up since have forgotten a lot of the traditional home cooking and even more nowadays. Preparing fresh food is so easy today, you can cook everything in vacuum packs and keep fresh food that contains all the flavour and nutrients that frozen food was never be able to – prepared this way, the food stays fresh for a long time too.’ Our hottest tip to the hospital kitchen planners for New Kirkenes Hospital is to call Varangerkokken!