Mutton & Cabbage Stew
I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes here, or risk being exiled by fundamental traditionalists, but here’s a Norwegian classic I’d like to share. Fårikål, literally translated means “sheep in cabbage”, and can be pronounced as “for-ee-kole”, is a dish as old as time. Every September in Norway, the annual Fårikål fest gets underway as troves of hungry Norwegians descend on town squares, reminiscent of a Viking raid, seeking out this seasonal feast.
I kid you.
Fårikål is a very basic boiled dinner consisting of tough fatty cuts of mutton boiled, on the bone, in water seasoned with salt and peppercorns. Cabbage is added and it simmers for hours. That, my friend, is Fårikål.
I wish I could tell you this Norse specialty was divided amongst lovers and haters, but it’s not that simple. There are as many shades of grey that color this dish as there are bunad patterns. There are Norwegians who hate Fårikål and others who love it. There’s also the people that don’t like it, but choke it down because they fear hurting their bestemor’s feelings, or even worse, breaking a long held tradition.
Six years ago I was introduced to Fårikål. On a plate, in oily broth, was boiled mutton, cabbage, and a few peppercorns that stretched their seasoning powers to the extreme. The paradox: here I am in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, and I’ve been served a dish just suitable enough to sustain life. And the verdict: it was pretty damn comforting!
Norway hasn’t always been this rich oil-gushing money trap we know it as today. Prior to 1969, most of the country lived in poverty, compared to standards of the rest of the western world. The country faced times so trying that by 1925, one-third the population had migrated to the U.S. in search of a better life.
From these disparaging times and long cold winters, people had to ration their food, and whatever prosperity the crops had yielded that year, if any, had to be conserved.
It was this history I tasted on that plate of fårikål. It may not have meant fine-dining and gourmet ingredients, but it embodied resilience and strength. And I was honored and humbled to be invited in to take part in a tradition that is slipping away from a younger, wealthier generation.
However, just because it started as a peasant dish doesn’t mean it has to taste like one. As with all traditions, making room for change, makes way for the next generation. I’ve always felt that hiding behind rigid traditions is never as much about homage as it is about fear of change. And it’s those traditions that lose their true meaning.
In my rendition of this classic dish, I think it’s important to respect its original form as a boiled dinner, but I’ve tweaked the flavor profile by using a blend of harmonizing herbs and seasonings. I also think the 3cm layer of sheep fat that sits on top is a serious turn-off, so I’ve strained and skimmed the excess fat. And I’ve also made it more kid-friendly by picking the meat off the bone and discarding the sinew, cartilage, and other waste. Sounds harsh, I know, but somebody had to do it.
This recipe was inspired by the original, but still stands alongside the thrill-seekers that have been tweaking and modifying Fårikål since its inception.
Fårikål (Mutton & Cabbage Stew)
- 1kg Mutton, on bone
- ½ cup flour
- 1 tsp Sage
- 1 tsp Rosemary
- 1 tsp Thyme
- 1 tsp Fennel seed
- 1 tsp Pepper
- 1 tbsp Smoked sea salt
- 2 liters Lamb or beef stock
- 3 bay leaves
- 10 peppercorns
- 2 cloves garlic
- 3 large potatoes
- 3 large carrots
- 1 medium head cabbage
- 1 leek, white part only
- ½ head of Celery root
- Fresh Parsley, chopped for garnish
Using a pestle and mortar, or a blender, combine sage, rosemary, thyme, fennel seed, pepper, and smoked sea salt. Blend well. Then divide the spice blend in half.
In a bowl, add flour and one half of the spice mixture. Combine.
Over med-high heat, pour 2 tbsp of oil into a large stock pot and heat until hot.
Dredge the pieces of mutton in seasoned flour, covering the entire surface. Then place meat in hot oil and sear to a crispy golden color. The more color, the more flavor.
In another large pot, bring the lamb or beef stock to a boil.
When the meat is all nicely seared, pour boiling stock into the mutton pot. Turn down the heat to low and add the second half of the spice blend, the peppercorns, bay leaves, and whole garlic cloves. Let simmer for 3 to 4 hours.
After it has simmered, strain the mutton broth into a large bowl, using a fine-mesh sieve, lined with cheesecloth. Allow meat and broth to cool separately for 45 minutes.
When the mutton is cool enough to handle, pick off the meat from the bone, discarding as much fat and waste as possible. Put the meat into the broth in the bowl.
Using a ladle, carefully place it on the surface of the broth and allow the top layer of oil to collect. Put the oil in a cup and continue skimming until as much oil as possible has been collected. Usually ½ -1 cup per kilogram of mutton.
Then skim across the top of the broth with a sieve to collect any extra solid bits of fat that may have floated to the surface.
Now cut the veggies. The potatoes, celery root, and carrots can be cut into 1-2cm cubes. For the leek, cut off the root and green top, then slice down the center. Give it a good rinse. Then finely slice both halves. For the cabbage, slice in half, then cut each half into thirds. Then cut each third into three parts, giving you eighteen pieces.
In the same large stockpot used for cooking the mutton, give it a quick wipe so there’s no impurities. Add 2 tbsp of the mutton fat you skimmed off the broth. Turn heat on high and add the leek and celery root. Sauté until they just start to turn a very light golden color. Then add the potatoes and carrots and continue sautéing for 5 more minutes, stirring constantly. Now add the broth and mutton. Cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning, add more salt if needed.
20 minutes before serving, add the cabbage. A good rule of measure is, when you put the buttermilk biscuits into the oven, then put the cabbage into the pot. So now let’s get those biscuits started.
- 3½ cups flour
- 160g unsalted butter, chilled
- 1½ cups buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- 4 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 200C.
In a large mixing bowl, measure out flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir to combine. Add the butter in small cubes. Incorporate the butter by using your hands. Squeeze the flour and butter through your fingers until no chunks of butter are left.
In another bowl, beat the eggs with a fork and then add the buttermilk.
Pour the buttermilk-egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir with a fork to combine. Don’t overwork the mixture.
Tip the soft, wet dough out onto a generously floured surface. Flatten the dough with your hands to about 3-4cm thick. Using a cutter or a clean empty tin can, cut out 8 large biscuits and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Put the biscuits in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops are nice and golden. Serve hot with butter.
So as the butter melts into the biscuits and the Fårikål is served up piping hot, you can sit down and feel comforted by the fact that it was the strength and resilience of an entire nation, starving for a better life, that has passed down a dish with such soul and sustenance that it too will be carried into the next generation, in both it’s natural and inspired states.