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Egging them on in the Land of the Midnight Ol...

The sun may have set on the days when some British pubs considered the serving of beer to be a priority, and offered no accompaniment more distracting than pickled eggs, but that is no excuse for faintheartedness.

Even in those days, it was necessary to look north for pubs where huge jars of gelatinous-looking ovoids, their whitish grey stained by brown malt vinegar, glowered from the corner of the bar, challenging any customer to be so reckless as to ask for anything to eat.

Does the Northern puritan side of my character nurse a nostalgia for those times? Perhaps it does. That might explain a current preoccupation of mine.

The last sighting of the sun in Tromso, Norway, was in late November. At the moment, a midday dusk is as bright as it gets.

When the sun is next sighted over the horizon, on January 20, the children will get a day off school and a treat of strawberry jam tarts and hot chocolate.

I shall stay my hand until the end of April, when the best bars in the town will start to serve Mack Beer with seagulls' eggs.

The season for this combination hits its stride on May 17, which is Constitution Day. This marks the beginning of the process that led to Norway's independence from Sweden.

The delicacy will be widely offered until June 15, at which point the seagulls' nests may by law no longer be disturbed.

From May 21 to July 21, the sun never sinks below the horizon. There will still be seagulls' eggs after that, from the fridge, and a few are kept for Christmas, but that is the modern world for you.

In season, Mack Beer and seagull eggs are served for lunch on the plane to Tromso (fly Braathens airways) and in the SAS hotel in town.

Mack Beer is broadly in the style of a South German pale lager. The man who runs Mack was trained at the famous Faculty of Brewing at Weihenstephan, near Munich. So was his father before him.

The family, however, originated from Brunswick, in the North of Germany. They moved further north, into Scandinavia, to establish the brewery in Tromso, in 1877.

Tromso is deep inside the Arctic Circle. Mack is the northernmost brewery in the world.

When the brewery was founded, Tromso was a base for hunters of bear and seals, and was beginning to grow as a fishing port. It was also a trading port from which fish were exchanged for corn from Russia.

Today, Tromso is also a university town, noted for its medical faculty and its many student cafes. It makes an unlikely Paris of the North, but is extravagantly dubbed as such.

These Parisians must feel very isolated in a town of 50,000 people, on the edge of an island six or seven miles long and two or three wide, surrounded by hundreds of miles of snow-covered mountains and icy sea.

Mack still uses some of its original lagering cellars, and its 1889 buildings have since 1928 served as the brewery tap. Those structures are now sandwiched by slabby edifices of the 1950s and 60s.

The brewery tap is called simply Żl Hallen (the Beer Hall). It is a heartily basic place, selling only beer, and no food, not even seagulls' eggs.

Its most exotic offerings are the Blanding or the Gullbok. The Blanding sounds less odd in English: it is actually a blending of Mack's Norges Pils and the brewery's Bayerol (Bavarian Dark Lager).

The second confection is a blend of Gull (meaning Gold -- a strong, 6.5 ABV lager -- nothing to do with birds) and a Bock of a similar potency.

Żl Hallen was traditionally the meeting place of hunters, and of skippers seeking crews. Many a case of Mack Beer was taken to sea, and many a crew sustained themselves by picking seagulls' eggs from the nests on far-flung islands and shores.

In those days, a northern fish-buyer who had enjoyed a good season went south to the capital, more than 700 miles away, to do business.

While there, he stayed at the Grand Hotel, bought himself a diamond ring, and smoked large cigars. In the dining room of the Grand Hotel, he ordered a Mack Beer, and was shocked to hear that the establishment did not stock his favourite brew.

He then demanded a serving of seagulls' eggs and met with a similar response. His outrage at this has become a legend.

Ever since, the notion has been fostered of Mack Beer and seagulls' eggs as inseparable symbols of northern culture.

Some beer marketers might fear that such a context would limit the sales potential of their brand, but Mack's present director, a pugnacious, shirtsleeve brewer, entertains no such qualms.

He has his own ideas about the selling of beer, as he demonstrated a few years ago when he successfully challenged a cartel that limited each brewery to its own regional market.

All executives at Mack have on their visiting cards a photograph showing a glass of the beer with two eggs. The back-label on Mack Beer suggests that it be served in such a combination and even the promotional tee-shirts show the beer and the egg in cartoon embraces.

A song celebrating Mack beer and seagulls' eggs was allowed airtime on the strictly non-commercial state radio on the grounds that is was cultural. The song made the Top Ten.

When I visited Mack in June, at the height of the seagull season, I was entertained to what I can only describe as high tea at the brewery. This comprised of generous servings of Mack Beer with seagulls' eggs.

The eggs are served boiled, still in the shells, and were presented in a large bowl that might otherwise have been filled with fruit.

The shells have camouflage colours of an almost military muddy-green, speckled with dark brown. The eggs are two or three times the size of those provided by hens.

The whites were a faintly iridescent grey-white, and the yolks a full reddish-amber.

The eggs are boiled for 13-15 minutes, and served with the yolk only partly solid. I found them sweetish and nutty, with perhaps a hint of seaweed.

My hosts said these must have been picked well in-shore; those from closer to the sea could be fishy.

They were served with fish -- three styles of salmon: smoked; picked in salt and sugar; and marinated in dill. There was also lumpfish caviar. Prawns and anchovies are also sometimes served.

It is the beer's place of origin, rather than its style, that led to its being served with the seagulls' eggs, but I did feel that these elements went well together.

Mack Beer, the brewery's principal product, does seem to have a faintly grassy character that lends it to this combination. I thought it might derive from the Finnish malt used, though others attribute it to the very tall cylindro-conical fermenters.

If you get to Tromso, and want to make your own tasting, make sure it is the Mack Beer you get. This is labeled simply Mack-Żl. The word Żl, sharing a root with ale, is simple the Norwegian for beer. Similar words are used in other Nordic languages.

The grassy character in the Mack-Żl is perhaps masked in the brewery's progressively hoppier Norges and Arctic Pils, the Gull, and coffeeish-malty Bayer and the dark, rich, Bock.

Fortified by my sampling, I strolled around the town of wooden buildings. Even the church in the town square is wooden.

That evening, I visited the Cormorant Inn, in a former fish-oil plant on the harbour. As the time approached midnight, people were still sitting outside, on the terrace.

The blackboard announced seagulls' eggs and seal, so that was what I had for supper. I enjoyed the seagulls' eggs for the second time in the same day, and the sliced seal meat (in a remoulade of seaweed) remarkably reminiscent of black pudding. What more could a Northerner want?

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: JAN 1, 1992
In: What's Brewing

Food/Pairings - Brew Travel - Brewery Review

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