A fine rain, like being in a cloud, enveloped us as we stood at the front of the big iron ship, ploughing its way up the fjord to Bergen. We didn’t care about the rain though, we were arriving in our new country with our precious cargo; warm and nurtured under my unsuitable and straining parisian jacket. Time enough for waterproofs in the next four years, but for now the thrill of being an anonymous pregnant woman, with a loving man by her side and a beautiful future was the only protection that I needed.
The shelter came along with minimum fuss and lots of luck in the form of a large, old wooden house perched high on the mountainside overlooking Bergen; not so exclusive considering the city is surrounded by seven mountains to choose from, but definitely on the all important sunny side of the city. The added attraction of this house was the roaring stream and waterfall that swept it’s carefully carved course through our rocky garden. After initial worries about the stream bursting its banks and sweeping us down the mountain, we relaxed and felt that it was safe enough. One other “hidden” extra that did dampen our infatuation with the location was the eighty six year old tyrant called “Lillemor” (Little mother) who lived upstairs. Only my poor Danish man could understand her and bear the brunt of her petulant demands in upper class Norwegian, matched only by my own erratic and hormonal requests. Add a newly born wailing baby girl two months later to these three stages of female life, and wait for the rains to fall and churn the placid stream into a torrent to muffle our demands.
The waterfall was no cruel howling water witch waiting for a sacrifice though. Instead, a force of such power that the three wailing women had to be still, and wait listening to the strength and compassion that the white water spoke of on dark winter nights. In the upstairs storey of the creaking mansion Lillemor tucked herself into her ancient marital bed and remembered her beloved husband. He who had hewn the course of the stream from the hard black granite, and had built the beautiful Lillemor a warm and strong house to help cushion the memories of a Norway ravaged from the wartime occupation by the Nazis. And indeed her store cupboard in the basement remained still well stocked with long past it’s sell by date tinned meats and tinned biscuits with faded lids of 1950’s flowers….just in case the bad times came back. There, in this solid and warm house, with the help of her straight-backed husband with his strong but gentle hands, she had seen her life being swept along with sweet sighs and laughter in her new wooden bed and the happy chatter of her fat children easing her rationing fears and offering her a life full of ease. She rightly refused to leave her lofty house full of the ghosts of happiness for a nursing home inhabited by all the people she had avoided when she was young and in control. Preferring instead her insomniac nights, pacing her memories in the long corridor of her life until the waterfall prepared to take her last breath away.
On those same winter nights as the old lady sorted through her dusty photographs, I too would lie awake listening to the volume of the water rip through the rocky channel with the sound of a deafening jet engine. My baby girl invariably in my arms, as I lay in the warmth and sweetness of my little family’s bodies, my mind would begin to process dark happenings in the preceding years, but I never got very far. That swift and powerful force churning just a few meters away outside my window would sweep up my snagging fears and littered snapshots, and whisk them away down the mountainside too. Some would return, streaked and nightmarishly distorted to haunt me in the quiet moments when baby slept and I gazed into the middle distance. But with a heavy week’s worth of rain, the river goddess would overpower them and pull them deftly under the white water.
Strip away the side of the wooden mansion and you would see us all as if in a toy house. On the first floor the little family of stiff -legged smiling and yawning new parents. Baby swaddled in muslin lying in her truckle bed made of a matchbox. The walls painted in a soft butter yellow, waxed wooden floors and floaty curtains. Furniture made from lollipop sticks and cotton reels, all clean and covered in striped and chequered fabrics. Mummy has made a chocolate cake and it sits on the cap of a cod liver oil bottle. The baby begins to crawl on the sparkly clean floor and mummy has some more padding up the front of her dress and seems to be lying on the sofa a lot eating oranges.
The top two floors were occupied by Lillemor and we see her as a knitted doll with red lips and fine padded thighs. One day I’d been fumbling to find my keys at the front door and she had appeared dressed for a day out! I was staggered, the octogenarian was dressed in hot pants, a sparkling halter neck top, sun visor and the huge cellulite riddled thighs. All I could summon up to say in my flaky Norwegian was “Du er så smukt!” (you are so lovely) She accepted my compliment with a haughty nod and swept out of the house to get lost up the mountain for a day or two.
We spent two happy years in the warm wooden house. Our baby boy arrived, and the long summer nights as I pegged the washing out at midnight in the light of the setting sun were the essence of magic on our mountainside. Looking up at our luminous house filled with all the things I loved the most was more than I could have ever anticipated. The palette of blues, greens, blacks and greys from the craggy peaks behind and around our home were our backdrop, we were well placed in Lillemor’s house of ghosts.
Within a month of that epiphany we left though. Huge blow flies and the smell of decaying flesh became unbearable over a period of two weeks. I had visions of the old lady passing away with her faded photo albums scattered around her pooled blood, or doing away with one of her infrequent home helps and Lillemor trying to hack her up and freeze her, just in case that was a war on soon. Eventually we found out that the stench turned out to be from a freezer in the loft being left open and several packets beef burgers rotting. We were uneasy though, and the image of her fumbling with matches to light her stove began to flicker through my imagination late at night in the tinder dry wooden house, so we moved away down the mountain instead.
I always missed our little wooden home on the mountain though; just in the winter of 2012 we took a visit down memory lane and visited with all our kids to see the house. Incredibly the postbox for Lillemor still stood and the same raggy 1950’s curtains hung at the window, so for all we know this feisty old lady is still ruling her kingdom and never did have that accident with matches.
This recipe originally comes from Bergen, where my first two children were born. The name “Skillingsboller” means one shilling bread. (Sounds a bit pricey to me) The Norwegian way is to roll a huge oblong of the dough out and smear it generously with a paste of butter, sugar and heaps of ground cinnamon. This is then rolled up and cut into small rolls. The smell of the cinnamon always takes me straight back to our little wooden house on the side of a mountain overlooking the fjord and our enchanted days in wonderful old Bergen.
Melt 150 g butter in a very large lidded pan. Add 3 teaspoons of sea salt, 2 dl sugar and 5 teaspoons of ground cardamom. Take off heat and add 6 dl milk, (the melted butter and warm saucepan will heat the milk to blood temperature) 75 g of fresh crumbled yeast (or 2 teaspoons of dried yeast) and 2 eggs. Stir until the yeast is well blended. Add 1 kg sifted strong flour and knead until all is smooth and shiny. Put the lid on and leave somewhere cosy and warm for about 45 minutes, or until doubled in volume.
After it has risen, knock back the dough and knead again until it is as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Let it rest for 5 minutes and then roll out into a very large oblong.
Preheat the oven onto 220 C. Smear the 250g softened butter all over the dough, add 300g sugar and 2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon and squelch it into a rich paste on the dough. Roll it up into a huge Swiss roll spiral. Cut in half, roll into a slimmer Swiss roll sausage shape and then cut into neat rounds and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Cook immediately for 20 minutes and transfer to a baking rack to cool.
The second sausage may be rolled and cut as before, placed on a baking tray, covered in cling film and left to chill until you require it within 2 days.
Another idea with the basic dough is to form small Clementine sized balls of the dough after it has risen and leave to prove in a warm place. Glaze with milk and bake at 220 C for 15 minutes. Divine served dusted with icing sugar and split with jam and whipped cream the English way or the Danish way with jam and butter.
My latest invention is to put a couple of cubes of good quality dark chocolate in the small dough balls, seal them in and leave to rise. Cook for 15 minutes in an oven warmed to 220 C and dust with icing sugar and eat while they are still hot….YUM!